Special needs

Why we need more teachers like Chris Ulmer

Florida teacher Chris Ulmer has inspired Anchel Krishna to take up a new tradition at home with her special-needs daughter.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” —Albert Einstein

If you have a kid with special needs in the school system, chances are you’ve come across that Einstein quote hanging on a classroom wall. But no matter how many times I’ve seen it, it always hits home. My five-year-old daughter Syona has cerebral palsy and that, combined with her communication challenges and vision issues, means that standard assessments (and by “standard,” I mean the ones used to assess kids with special needs) aren’t always an accurate measure of her abilities.

By now you’ve probably heard about about Chris Ulmer, the 26-year-old teacher in Jacksonville, Florida, who starts his special education class by calling up each student individually to give them a compliment and a high-five (see video above). I couldn’t help but be reminded of Syona’s teacher and how she supports each kid in a very similar way. Ulmer recently shared the video, which has since gone viral. “I have seen their confidence and self-worth skyrocket,” he wrote in a caption. All I could think was: How lucky these students, including my own daughter, are to have such inspirational teachers.

This year, we’ve been especially lucky with Syona’s teacher. She has an attitude that can best be summarized in one word: awesome. Her teacher doesn’t focus on what can’t be done—she focuses on what can be done, even if it’s unconventional. Over the past several months, my husband Dilip and I have seen Syona’s confidence increase tenfold. She uses words she wouldn’t have thought to use before (she recently told me about her classmate’s trip to Ecuador and was very proud when I understood her on the first try). She’s also become persistent in speaking up when someone misunderstands what she’s saying and perseveres in communicating her point.

Dilip and I have even seen our own confidence increase in terms of working as a team to ensure we can maximize our daughter’s learnings. We’ve been able to have some really tough but helpful conversations focused on increasing Syona’s attention span and teaching her about personal safety. All of this is because of the dynamic we’ve been able to establish with her teacher. 

I actually wondered what the impact would be if we implemented something similar to what Ulmer does with his students in our home. We’ve recently started our day by reminding each other of the good qualities we all possess. Often there’s so much going on at any given moment as parents, students and educators that it’s easy to feel like you’re doing a mediocre job. If we were reminded of our strengths on a regular basis, wouldn’t it be a nice memory to refer back to throughout the day (not to mention a nicer lens through which we could view the people we come into contact with)?

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Ulmer’s reach as a teacher goes far beyond the walls of his classroom. In fact, by sharing his simple, thoughtful practice, he teaches all of us to take a moment and truly appreciate the strengths of an important person in our lives.

Follow along as Anchel Krishna shares her experiences as mother to Syona, an extraordinary five-year-old with cerebral palsy. Read all of Anchel’s Special-needs parenting posts and follow her on Twitter @AnchelK.

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