REWARDING CAREER IN SPECIAL ED

By Jana Cunningham, communications specialist, University Marketing and Communications

A special education preschool teacher at Copper Canyon Elementary in West Jordan, Utah, Paige Furbush is working towards her Master of Education at the U, where she also received her bachelor’s degree in the same field. Although she originally wasn’t planning to become a teacher, she ended up finding a career that was more rewarding than she had ever imagined.

Furbush took time away from her classroom and studies to answer some questions about her career and education at the U.

Q: Why did you decide to major in special education?

A: Early childhood special education has a very important place in my heart. My img_1242little sister was born with a rare brain defect that resulted in her having multiple, severe disabilities. I was able to see firsthand the incredible effects of quality early intervention and early childhood special education services. Seeing my sister grow and flourish as a result of the amazing teachers and service providers who worked with her brought me to where I am today.

Q: As a freshman, did you know you wanted to become a special education teacher?

A: No, not at all. I actually started at the U majoring in political science with a minor in campaign management. My junior year of college, I interned for a senator in Washington, D.C. and realized at the end of that internship I did not want to work in that field. I re-evaluated what was important to me in a career and ended up making the switch to special education.

Q: How did the program prepare you for teaching?

A: The early childhood special education program at the U prepared me for teaching by ensuring I took a wide variety of courses that addressed all of the critical components of the profession. The way the program was broken down really helped me gain a holistic understanding of the world of special education. The courses covered assessment, using data effectively to guide my instruction, how to differentiate instruction to meet diverse learner needs, the foundations of child development as well as specialized courses that were specific to meeting the diverse needs of preschoolers in the classroom. Most of the special education courses required some sort of practicum, so I was actually able to apply what I was learning in my classes out in the field. Throughout my field studies and student teaching, I was supported by my advisors through regular observations, meetings and coaching sessions.

Q: When you graduated, did you feel ready to being your teaching career?

A: I can truly say when I was finished with the program, I was more than ready to successfully handle the complexities of teaching a class of very diverse students and working with their families. I left the U with a wealth of knowledge and resources regarding best practice in special education. I still keep many of my old class notes in my desk at work to refer back to when planning instruction, writing education programs or putting together parent trainings. The special education program at the U goes beyond just teaching methodology, it gives you real world experience in the field and plenty of material to get you through your first year of teaching.

Q: What are some of the experiences during your education that stand out to you?

A: What stands out to me the most was the passion my special education professors had for the field. They made every class not only engaging, but also incredibly meaningful. I left class each night feeling invigorated and genuinely excited about applying what I had learned in an actual classroom.

Q: Were there any professors that had a large influence on you and your education?

A: Yes! Cathy Nelson, Kristen Paul and Susan Johnston have all been huge inspirations to me throughout my education. They are all so knowledgeable and have such a deep understanding of how to best work with young children with special needs. All of their advice and suggestions have helped me make a real difference in the lives of my students and their families. Beyond their continuous encouragement and support throughout my undergraduate career, I always felt as though they truly respected my point of view as an educator. During class discussions, they always treated me like a peer, as opposed to a student.

Q: What advice do you have for students thinking about going into special education?

A: First, I would have to say that there is no other job as genuinely rewarding as a special educator. Every single day, you are changing the lives of these children and their families. There are definitely challenges—the paperwork, disagreements with other professionals and the inevitable days where every student seems to be having a bad one- but if you make the effort to stay positive, your job will never actually feel like “work.” Remember that every child can learn, and you have the tools and knowledge to reach them, no matter where they’re at when they come to you.

Q: What are some of your proudest moments/accomplishments in teaching?

A: My first year of teaching, I received a score of “highly effective” on the district-wide teacher appraisal system, which was incredibly encouraging. Last year, I was able to see incredible progress from two of my most severe students (both had dual sensory loss, as well as other profound disabilities), and taught them both to use an individualized calendar system, as well as develop functional communication skills that allowed them to be more independent and successful in the classroom. This year, my classroom was also selected to be a model classroom for a national project related to implementing recommended practices in early childhood special education.

Q: Recently, you created a GoFundMe campaign to purchase a special bed for one of your students. How did that come about?

img_2674A: I had a student last year who, after surviving brain cancer as an infant, was left with multiple severe disabilities, including dual sensory loss, a seizure disorder and significant cognitive impairment. I became very close with her family and learned they had been trying to get a medical bed for their daughter through their insurance for over a year with no success. This child had seizures in her sleep and would wake up extremely disoriented, leaving the door open for potentially fatal injury to occur. I just got fed up with the fact that these amazing parents were facing the very real possibility of their daughter passing away in the night just because their insurance wouldn’t pay for the $10,000 bed. I decided to start the GoFundMe campaign in an attempt to raise the money. Amazingly, KSL News picked up our story and we were able to exceed our goal and get the bed that she needed. To me, the most important part of my job as a special education teacher is working with my families and teaching them how to advocate for their child, so their needs are met. Beyond just getting the money for the bed, the GoFundMe campaign helped me show these parents they are not alone and there are many people who support them.

The Department of Special Education provides undergraduate degrees in five different areas; early childhood special education, mild/moderate disabilities, severe disabilities, visual impairments and deaf/hard of hearing. The mission of the department is to improve the life of people with disabilities and their families by developing and disseminating essential skills, knowledge and values through research, teaching and service.

Students interested in learning more about careers and degrees in special education can contact the Department Chair, Susan Johnston, susan.johnston@utah.edu or 801-581-5187.