"I remain determined to maintain heading toward community collaboration, rigorous instruction and lifting our student's voices. We meet them where they are and take them beyond their dreams."
- Melissa Thompson
Melissa Thompson is the Assistant Principal at a specialized needs public school for children with neurodiverse challenges in central Maryland. Melissa graduated from the University of Maryland -Baltimore County, Master of Arts at Gallaudet University, and Master of Science at Johns Hopkins University.
When did you first realize special education was part of your professional calling?
When I was in the third grade I complained to my mom that I was bored and she bought me a chalkboard. Combine that with the teacher edition textbooks that my great aunt would send me, and I was completely hooked. There is something so powerful in teaching another human being a novel piece of information. I taught to invisible students and praised them for their efforts and scolded them for their misbehavior.
Humans are natural teachers and learners. I can only teach by learning we learn best by teaching. If you’ve ever seen the look on a child’s face - your own or someone else’s - the day they figure something out its as addictive as any drug. You’ve witnessed a miracle. How much more human a moment there is in life I’m not even sure. I’m not sure a more human a moment exists. For a teacher, you are part of that child’s story. That part of the story can be good and fulfilling and joyful, or it can be the end of dreams. It’s not so different in special education. The discovery and miracle is there. The added layer is that children with neurodiversity are going to have to live and cope in a neurotypical world. No matter what, all of the students with disabilities are going to be in a world that is not built for them. Your choices are work around or work through those barriers.
Describe a day at your job:
I could never be away from kids. Most of my days start and end with children in classrooms. I love to sit with them. ask what they are learning and ask if someone made them feel important that day. Every child needs a champion. Hamish Brewer is one of my biggest inspirations and he says to his students, “If no one tells you that they love you, I’m the principal and I’M telling you! Mr. Brewer LOVES you.”
My favorite part of the day is lunch recess duty. That is when kids are kids. I play tag, jump rope, open juice boxes, feed students, bring them from one place to another, and ask about reddit and video games. Kids don’t learn from someone they don’t like. When it gets to be my turn to teach them, they’ll know they can trust me.
What are the greatest social compassion needs for people with special needs?
Presuming competence. Many people assume that disability is less than because of a difference. People experiencing disabilities are just that - EXPERIENCING them. It CAN be, but doesn’t HAVE to be part of a person’s identity. Starting with language. Person first…I think its the same struggle for most underserved populations. A child with Down's Syndrome is much different than a “Downs kid”. I was lucky enough to be in graduate school at Gallaudet University in Washington DC at the 10 year anniversary of the Deaf President now protests. Undergraduate students demonstrated and closed down the campus in order to insist that the University president should be deaf in order to fully represent the Deaf community. I learned a lot about disability rights in those 2 years, and the advocacy that is still needed.
How do you educate a person who makes fun of, or doesn't understand a person with special needs?
I’ve learned a lot by taking a breath and asking questions about how the person finds humor or has that view of persons with disabilities. Most of the time people have those views or values from way back. I’ve quit trying to make it my job to change peoples minds and started asking questions so that the person starts to think, “yeah. Why DO I think that way?”. It’s pretty exhausting sometimes and it requires some time. I’ve devised a script of questions when someone says something insulting or degrading, which helps me a) not serve jail time and b) learn more about where those beliefs come from. It’s handy and I’ve drilled and practiced so much that its like a fire drill.
What are the special education public school system greatest challenges?
Oof. I don’t know if there’s enough time or space. Let’s start at the top, with the most abstract of structures. Until 1975, there were no laws requiring that students with disabilities should be able to go to school. In fact, the single biggest event to change the tide about how we treat people with disabilities is that JFK had a sister with a disability. That personal influence sparked a number of laws about discrimination and lead to the Civil Rights Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act was not passed until 1990. The history of civil rights for people with disabilities is all recent history. I think we can all agree that there is a VAST difference between change that is legislated and change that is cultural. the former comes from a space of “have to” and the latter is from a space of “ought to”.
So, drill down to the hard containers of the public school. The public school that is preparing students the same way they have for the last 150 years (or more). Every kid goes through the same course of study at the same time. It is industrialized and lacks creativity and innovation. Only in the last 5 years has the idea of equity and inclusiveness and diversity been lifted up and valued. So, generation after generation were taught to the middle and that holds everyone back. Those who are served well by the public school system are the children who respond to a particular format for school. Further, teachers choose the profession gravitate to is because it is a format that served them well. So, no surprise that people of color choose not to go into education. They were underserved the first time through school…why would anyone want to go back to chalk dust torture? No surprise if teachers with disabilities are underrepresented…why would they go back to buildings that are not accessible?
The biggest challenge to special education in the public school system is and continues to be mindset. Students with disabilities have to constantly and continually prove that they belong in school that they are worth an education at public expense. Yes, it’s more work to accommodate for students with disabilities. yes, its more time consuming. yes its more costly. YES! Its worth it! Why? because they are children and we live in an evolved and benevolent society.
Now, I’ve gone to a public school in 3 different countries and I’ll tell you there are enormous differences between Australian, Japanese and American schools. Of the 3 I enjoyed the Australian schools the best. They had a collective feel. From the time I was in Kindergarten to high school I was assigned a house (think Harry Potter). Each house get merits and demerits and the house with the most points at the end of the school year won a cup, including a day when they would be able to play all day at school. The education was organic, it was inquiry based and natural. We learned in the first grade how to politely debate and we had conflicts in front of the class. It taught me to be civil and opinionated and gave me the tools to listen and digest and respond. Those skills still serve me well today.
You are known as the "Leslie Knope" (character on the TV series Parks and Rec) on the administration staff - what makes you appear this way to your coworkers?
Ha HA!! I think you’d really have to see my desk to get a flavor for that. Everything is color coded, ranked by importance and the smallest details are considered. Spreadsheets, data, projects and organization are a BIG deal to me. My dad used to say, “its about the 7 P’s; Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.” It’s true and I take it to the nth power. I’m not so different from my type A brethren and like to have schedules, time tables, plans and back up plans. I’m told that my energy level is very like Leslie Knope’s and that my passion sometimes guides me into larger than life projects. I’m definitely an extrovert to a an extreme, and a very big picture thinker. I do wish I had Leslie Knope’s wardrobe, though.
How do you carve time for yourself with such a big, sometimes overwhelming career? What are your outlets?
I talk to my friends on Marco Polo. I treasure my kids. I read biographies of great people. I organize Ragnar (running relay) teams.
What is your mantra?
Quo Vadis. It is a latin term with a lexical gap, meaning that there’s not a direct translation, but the sentiment is “where ya goin’? What is your journey?” I think it has some biblical roots, but I like the idea of asking people where they think they are going.
Do you have a favorite recipe you can share?
1/3 to 1/2 C. chopped red onion
1 chopped red (or your favorite color) bell pepper about 1 cup
1 1/2 cups of corn kernels- I used frozen & that was just as good as fresh
1 zucchini chopped (about 1 cup)
1/2 avocado chopped (I used 1 whole one)
3 medium kale leaves (de-stemmed),chiffonade (cut into very thin strips or ribbons)
Handful chopped cilantro
1 whole jalapeno de-seeded & finely diced
2 1/2 C. of canned black beans drained & rinsed
juice of 1 lemon
i added dried cranberries & chopped dried apricots, about a cup of each.
1 TBS. plus 1 tsp.stone ground mustard
1/8 tsp. cumin
scant dash cayenne
1/8 tsp.curry powder
Juice of 1 lemon
1 TBS.apple cider vinegar
1 TBS. extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt to taste
1 tsp.of agave syrup or sugar
I know it looks like a lot of ingredients,but it's all veggies...so just chop & dump into the bowl. It’s the little lack dress of recipes. It is a main, a side, a sharing dish, its pretty and functional and always a big hit.
THANK YOU FOR TEACHING US, MELISSA
THANK YOU FOR BEING A CHAMPION FOR CHILDREN
STEPHANIE, SAVI AND MARTY