"They have my heart": An interview with three Bay County special education teachers

In 1975, children with disabilities were federally guaranteed the right to a fair and adequate education and today, special education and related services meet the needs of over 6 million students - roughly 13% of total public school enrollment across the United States. All of these students are given an Individual Education Plan (IEP), which contains strategies and plans that are written, monitored, and implemented by special education teachers.

Route spoke with three of Bay County’s special education teachers - Meagan Panzner, Paige Aultman and Heather Wheatcraft - about their experiences helping children with special needs learn and grow.

Route: How did you come to work at Bay City Public Schools?

Meagan Panzer: My roots are in Bay City and I knew that I wanted to work in the public schools. I love the history of Bay City and I couldn’t imagine raising my children anywhere else.

Heather Wheatcraft: This is my first year in Bay City as a teacher. I have been wanting to work in Bay City for quite some time and felt this was the right time to make that move this school year. I immediately felt welcome and supported at my school as soon as I started the school year. The parents and community have been fantastic to work with so far this year.

Route: What drove you to teach special education?

Paige Aultman: I became a special educator due to myself being in special education. I feel connected to my students due to the fact that I am an example of someone who has a "label" who has succeeded... I also wanted to make a difference and this career does that; one student at a time.

Meagan Panzer: As a young child, I didn’t learn the same way that many other students did. I needed to be taught just a bit differently... I knew that I wanted to be one of those teachers that made a difference in the lives of struggling learners.

Route: What is your role as a special education professional?

Meagan Panzer: My job is to teach them that it is okay to make mistakes. We need to learn from our mistakes and move forward toward success. Before learning can take place, it is important that the students trust me, understand that it is okay to take risks, feel safe in their environment and believe in themselves.

Route: What have you learned about yourself as an educator and as a person in the course of your work with special needs kids?

Heather Wheatcraft: You have to be able to make hundreds of decisions and adapt to situations each day that determines student success. I have learned that I am very patient and able to connect with all students in my classroom.

Route: What are the misconceptions you experience around special education?

Paige Aultman: The stigma of special education is still there, but over the years I have seen more acceptance throughout my own education career and now with being an educator. I will also get lots of comments about how "I must be patient to be a special education teacher". I want people to know that my students are just "normal" students; they just need a little extra push.

Route: What is your favorite part of your role as a teacher?

Heather Wheatcraft: The interaction with students each day and making an impact on their lives both educationally and in preparing them for life after they exit school. Students are able to make tremendous growth during the course of one school year. I am very fortunate to be a part of that time with my students.

Paige Aultman: I love being a teacher and learn new things each day from my students. I have been very blessed by my students and they will always have a part of my heart.

Meagan Panzer: My role is to help my students meet their full potential through lessons, life experiences, and teaching job skills...We buy school supplies, hygiene products and clothing for our students that need them. We make sure that every student has food to eat when they are not in school. We make sure that each child knows that we care about them and will be there when they need us. We cry with families when our students are taken from earth too early, and we are there to help students during and after the loss of a loved one. My students are always in my heart and on my mind; we care more than they will ever know.
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