Following the spring semester at Nazareth College, those interested in becoming certified to teach special education are enrolled in two classes designed to give practical experience on how to navigate the ever-evolving field of special education. As with student teaching, students registered to take the special education program were divvied up and sent to different schools throughout the city of Rochester. The school I happened to be placed at was the Calkins Road Wegmans.
Over the last four years, Wegman’s has partnered with Monroe #1 BOCES, Lifetime Assistance, ACCES-VR, and Finger Lakes DDSO in an effort to recruit, train, educate, and find employment opportunities in a competitive job market for students with significant disabilities. At Wegman’s, the students are placed directly into the mix of a wonderfully efficient grocery machine; students work in nearly all departments, including cashiering, maintenance, restocking, the bakery, the pizza shop, helping hands, and Olde World Cheese – all of which give them valuable experience to add to their resumes.
When I first entered the program as a student teacher, the students had only seven weeks left of class and were nearing the point where their employment goals were fast approaching. Once a student was officially hired to any competitive employment job, they could leave the program and begin earning their beloved, gratifying, noble paycheck.
I remember things were tense when I first entered the room; several students had a clear look of discontent since they could see I was literally the same age as them and they would still need to address me formally as their teacher. My only defense to this initial shock was to throw on a smile and introduce myself, showing a sense of confidence though I could feel the crowd in the room was uneasy.
The first couple days I could do little to improve my situation; I would walk around the store watching the students work in their various departments. My role felt more like a clueless supervisor than a student teacher. Since I had no Wegman’s experience to speak of, I felt that I was accomplishing nothing. By the third day, it hit me that I was going about my work all wrong; I wasn’t teaching them how to do their jobs, I was fine-tuning their skills and working with the students to self-advocate. It was decided with my cooperating teacher that I would start devising a lesson on their rights in the workforce under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. During the workday I began asking different supervisors throughout the store what it would take for Wegman’s to consider hiring a Project Search student, and I began assigning homework for students to find jobs using Indeed.com to locate options outside of Wegman’s.
With new motivation and poise that I was doing the right thing, I began to find myself getting a sense of belonging. I worked with students and taught them how to work as teachers in being facilitators, what proper workplace accommodations were, and examples of workplace discrimination specifically targeting those with disabilities. I was slowly earning their respect, which would allow me to go further with how I wanted to help the students. I soon began carrying a stopwatch and working with students to constantly increase their speed which was seen by their supervisors to be the weakness in many of the interns.
I began to grow a passion for working with the students. Even though I was short term, I knew I was around during the most vital part of the program where students could immediately jump into employment. I worked hard with finding available jobs that interested the students and we worked tirelessly on practicing the do-or-die moment of the interview.
As time went by, I got a feeling of total immersion. I was a teacher; I was seen as knowledgeable, confident, trustworthy and friendly by students and staff, all of which are skills necessary for a successful teacher. By the last week of the my placement, we had formed a well-oiled machine and had several students hired and numerous others with interviews. Everyone’s hard work had paid off and just knowing that I was leaving soon was painful to comprehend. In six short weeks I felt like I had emerged into a family, and saying goodbye was not going to be easy.