Saturday, March 29, 2014

Years 23 to 34: Education Specialist for Spokane Public Schools: There's Preschool; and then there's Milena!

As I've said before, one of the great joys of being an education specialist is getting the opportunity to work with such a diverse group of people. You get to see teachers who are organized and methodical; finding a style that works for them and honing it to perfection. You see brand new teachers who's faces light up and their confidence increase when they take suggestions you've given and put them into practice. And you also see teachers who may be having problems with behavior or other classroom issues, never take a suggestion or the help that's offered.

Such was my experience over and over in Spokane. But when I had the opportunity to focus more with the preschool group after about a year and a half in the job, the experiences became more positive. When I left Spokane in 1989 to go to Cheney, I was one of just five preschool teachers in the district. When I returned in 1999 as an education specialist, that number had grown to twelve. And the types of programs had changed as well. Not only did we have self-contained programs for our children with more severe disabilities, but we also had integrated programs with Head Start and our district childcare program, Express.

 I'll never forget my first meeting with the preschool group. Susan B., the elementary coordinator I worked with was also put in charge of managing the preschool programs. By the 2000/2001 school year, the other education specialists had slowly turned over the preschool programs in their buildings to me. So Susan decided to make it a permanent part of my job and asked me to attend a meeting at Bancroft where one of our CAPE and one of our self-contained programs were housed. Susan had some ideas of how to move these programs forward which included having a group of psychologists dedicated to the testing of preschoolers. It also included more professional development for this group and adding me as their ed specialist to help with curriculum development, classroom  observations and the management of behavior issues. Susan outlined some of her plans and then she introduced me. By this time, I knew several of these teachers, but I had not yet met Milena!

 I'd heard stories about this woman, and truth be told, some of the ed specialists were a little afraid of her. Tall, with short white hair and a thick Czech accent; she could be a bit intimidating. So when she came up to talk to me after the meeting, I was a little afraid as well! She said, "So, what makes you think you would be a good ed specialist for preschool?" I said, "Twenty-two years in the classroom as a special education teacher; fifteen of those in preschool?" She paused for a minute, and then she smiled her big smile and laughed and said, "Okay!" And thus a long standing friendship was born!

Milena is one of those teachers who changes the lives of those who are privileged enough to meet and work with her. She has a style that is uniquely her own. Trained at Gonzaga, she is a master in using direct instruction, applied behavior analysis, and the Picture Exchange Communication System to make huge gains with her children with autism. But she doesn't stop there; she is also a master in more eclectic social communication models like James McDonald's ECO and Stephen Gutstein's Relationship Development Intervention.

She has the patience of twelve people put together. I've seen her continue to do Circle Time; calmly calling on children to come and choose a song, conducting a game, or doing greetings; all the while with a screaming child holding onto a hunk of her hair and pulling it hard! She is kind and thoughtful almost to a fault. I've seen her be completely distraught when we had to tell one child's parents that he had broken her jaw (she had this wired shut for 10 weeks during the summer, living off liquids and mashed potatoes). She did not want his parents to give up on him. And her sense of humor is amazing! One day I was talking to a teacher who taught in a self contained program one level up from preschool. She told me that she went to do an observation of a student she would be getting from Milena the next year. When she arrived, Milena was just beginning her Circle Time. Things started out quietly, but then, just when everyone was relaxed and unsuspecting, Milena pulls out one of her opening activities she does to get the children's attention. On this day it happened to be a frog toy that when you squeezed it, a long tongue came out and touched you! My friend Sue said she almost fell off her chair! That's Milena! She has the best attention getting activities ever!

And what about today? Well this gifted teacher who I've seen move from Indian Trail, to Woodridge, to Bryant, to Browne and now to Holmes, continues to teach some of our most impacted preschool children. Recently I called her during a lunch break on a Friday. I know that the preschool teachers have Fridays to help with assessments and get lesson plans and activities ready for the following week. So I expected to be able to chat for a few minutes. However that was not the case. When I called, Milena said, "I'm so glad you called but I only have a minute to talk. My first grade social group is coming down and I need to be ready." It seems that Milena saw the need to work with students beyond the preschool in this poverty stricken school, and so volunteers her planning time to conduct social skills groups with the different grades. That is dedication.

Milena has mentored and influenced many young teachers over the years. Whitney, Pia, Lisa, Sally; all have gone on to be amazing teachers. Something my sister said to me a few years ago when I was thinking about getting my second dog, Darby seems to fit here. She said, "Kathy, if you get a dog now, Murphy will help to train him and when Murphy is gone, you'll have a little bit of him left in Darby." And that's what I see when I watch some of these teachers mentored by Milena; they all have their own styles, but there is a little bit of Milena in all of them! And that is a wonderful gift.