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Collaboration is key for Morris Area’s teacher of the year

Heather Schneider, a special education teacher in the Morris Area School District, was named the 2013 Teacher of the Year by her colleagues. Schneider said she is proud of the way the district’s special education teachers collaborate with classroom teachers to help all students.

MORRIS – Parents of special education students from around the area have chosen to open-enroll their children in the Morris Area School District because the district’s special education program is so strong.

Heather Schneider, the 2013 Teacher of the Year for Morris Area, said she and the other special education teachers in the district work hard to collaborate with classroom teachers and provide targeted services for students in all grade levels.

“It’s been an honor to be chosen as the teacher of the year from Morris,” Schneider said. “I often times think that I’m just here in my own little world. It’s been an honor to know that my work does get recognized.”

Schneider is originally from Maynard, Minn., and attended college at Minnesota State University Moorhead, which has a strong program for special education teachers.

“In high school I helped some special education teachers out and I just thought it was a great thing for these kids to be able to have opportunities to learn,” said Schneider. “I like seeing those ‘Ah ha!’ moments that they get when they finally catch on to the concepts you want them to know.”

Schneider earned three special education licenses, which allows her to work with students who have mild to moderate and moderate to severe mental impairments as well as students with physical impairments. She also recently completed certification to work with students with autism spectrum disorders.

Although Schneider has 10 students who are officially on her caseload, she works with many others through targeted services and other programs.

Last year, for example, MAES experimented with a “flex grouping” system for first grade students to help focus on skills building like letter sounds or rhyming with smaller groups of students which, in turn, should help improve test scores. This year, the flex grouping program has expanded to all students in first through third grades and drawn in all of MAES’ special education teachers.

Many of the students who participate in the special education program need help with subjects like reading, math or writing, while others struggle with social or behavioral skills.

“Most of my kids will never go to the classrooms because of their academic levels for reading and math, but we try to integrate them as much as possible for special activities or art, science or social studies – those things we can adapt more than reading and math,” said Schneider.

“We collaborate with the regular teachers a lot,” she continued. “That’s a big goal for us, to get those kids back integrated into the classrooms as much as we can.”

In addition to her work at MAES, Schneider also does consulting for physically impaired students through the Midwest Special Education Cooperative, a nine-district group dedicated to providing special education services to students. In that position, Schneider visits other districts to observe students and determine if they qualify for special education services.

In the 12 years that Schneider has been in the district Morris Area’s special education program has grown because students are open-enrolling in what is considered a very strong program. As a result, the district has hired several more paraprofessionals to work with special education students, a group Schneider and the other teachers help oversee.

The district has also implemented programs that try to keep students in the classroom rather than labeling them right away, Schneider said.

Schneider said she is proud of the way the special education teachers at MAES work hard to collaborate and work with each other and classroom teachers as advocates for their students.

“We make sure that we’re providing the best services for our students that we have the capability of doing,” she said. “We’re good advocates for our students and making sure that they are getting all their needs met. That has helped our program a lot.”