(PCM) When a young, determined special education teacher takes on the impossible task of teaching six so-called “unteachable” children, she not only transforms their lives; she also opens the doors for all future exceptional students who followed.
This is the premise of “More Heaven: Because Every Child Is Special,” the riveting new book, by International Bestselling Author, Dr. Jo Anne White, a noted motivational speaker, TV & radio executive producer and host of “Power Your Life.”
The book, published by Outskirts Press, has won numerous honors, including the Mom’s Choice Award Honoring Excellence and the Best Ever You Books Blue Ribbon Award for Excellence. It’s also an Amazon top 10 International Bestseller in three categories.
In 1975, the federal government mandated that all children, regardless of disability, be given the right to a public education.As a result of this historic mandate, this young pioneering teacher – with heaping doses of pluck and perseverance – stepped into a Philadelphia classroom of exceptional learners and transformed their world.
This “true life” experiment took place when Dr. White was hired by the Philadelphia Board of Education as the first teacher and program coordinator for children who were either expelled or had never entered the hallways or classrooms of a public school.
The cutting-edge program, which initially was not embraced by the typical education teachers, parents or by the administrators,began slowly. Its success paved the way for more special education classes to open in the public arena. “Not only did we persevere,” Dr. White explained, “we conquered skepticism and won victories for these children to live and thrive in society.”
Dr. White says that she fought hard, alongside the children and their tireless parents, “to restore dignity in their lives. This dignity, the birthright of every human being, had been denied them. The time had come to make things right.”
This pioneer has crucial lessons for all of us today: to learn that despite tremendous obstacles, each of us can use our compassion to bring out the best in our children. By using her common sense, imagination,sheer will, and a caring heart, she truly changed the lives of these formerly“unteachable” students in her class.
Dr. White still vividly recalls the first day of school when a little girl named Eva, who had autism, arrived for the new program.“There was great skepticism on the part of the faculty and the administration,of the notion of educating Eva. The girl’s driver echoed those sentiments to the young teacher, ‘Believe me,’ he confides, ‘I wouldn’t want your job for nothin’ in the world.’”
Q: How will your book, “More Heaven: Because Every Child is Special,” positively impact parents, teachers and the greater community?
DR. JO ANNE WHITE: I’d like people to understand how wonderful these children are, instead of seeing them as strange or approaching them with great apprehension. We need to be able to co-exist and embrace our differences when it comes to everything: ethnicity, culture, learning,and neurological differences. So, it has always been very important for me that everyone understand the richness and beauty of each child. That is the way to truly embrace humanity.
Q: Please tell me a little bit about your history as a teacher.
JW: I was planning to go to school for English literature and writing, until I became involved in an inclusive camp program. When this visionary director of the program created a division for children with special needs, it opened my eyes and I changed my plan to study education and special education.
Q: That sounds like a life-changing moment.
JW: Yes. When I walked into that camp program I completely fell in love with the children there.
Q: What do you recall from that experience?
JW: I remember working with one little girl who would bite her arms and bite the insides of her cheeks with sores that wouldn’t heal. She hummed and had ritualistic behavior. I immediately took her under wing, and sang to her, and massaged her cheeks, when no one else wanted to go near her. She blossomed under my care. This was such a beautiful life-altering experience and it shaped my future. I thought to myself ‘this is important.’
Q: Did the text books prepare you for that first special education classroom?
JW: No, not with these children. What I learned in school was important and served me; but I also had to bring something else to these kids. I had to reach them with unconventional methods, by getting into each of their worlds and being extremely resourceful, imaginative and creative.
Q: Please talk about being a young special education teacher, what was that like?
JW: I didn’t know what to expect. There were so many unknowns; and the truth be told, not everybody, including the faculty and many parents, wanted this to happen. It was new territory; people were afraid and misinformed. This was a case of sink or swim; I didn’t know what to expect.These children were labeled as more disabled than some of the previous groups of children I had taught. The first girl, who had autism, came to school in a taxi because it was thought ‘how could she function on a bus or relate to other kids.’
Q: But you say you never considered giving up even on the toughest days. So what about you personally made you stick with it, no matter how overwhelming this was?
JW: Something that has served me well over the course of my life is perseverance. I have patience, perseverance and an understanding that the time has to be right for everything. I also know that in life you need to take chances.
Q: What is the most important life lesson for each of us who work with and care for children?
JW: My book gives you a front row seat where you get to know these six children up close and personal. It’s important to understand that despite the many challenges and mannerisms each child faces and their families face ,each child has special gifts we need to nurture and celebrate every single day.
Q: How is all of this relevant today – some 40 years later?
JW: There are many reasons. One major reason is about bullying, and the way children with special needs are still judged, as opposed to being accepted by their communities. My book, “Bully Free,” which also won awards, ties into “More Heaven.” It focuses on my interviews with parents about their children with autism and special needs who were victims of bullying at school and in the community, and the deep emotional scars left on these families.
Q: How did you know how to teach these so-called“unteachable” children?
JW: I knew that I had to reach these kids, so I did whatever I could do, as long as it was ethical. With the first child, I used play, movement and dance since she was never still for long. Much of this was not a part of typical classroom lessons. I was literally utilizing whatever I could to make that connection, and for each child it was different. I knew I had to reach them and had to figure out how to enter their different worlds so they would eventually embrace and accept the world of learning and socialization.
Q: What was the result?
JW: Each of my students slowly started to accept their surroundings and felt ‘wow, this is okay. My teacher is not telling me I am crazy or ridiculous.’ I was able to get them to trust me, open up to their individual worlds and join our world.
Q: Why are you so proud of this book?
JW: I am repeatedly told that “More Heaven,” captures people’s hearts. It allows the reader to see what went on back then, and to understand that despite the strides we have made we are not there yet. Many parents at that time were told that their children could never learn or would best be served by an institution.
Q: What are the vital life lessons for all of us?
JW: People need to recognize the struggles, the passion and determination from families who have done so much to create change. We need to say to the world ‘stop putting blinders on and let’s teach these kids and not hide from it or ignore it.’ All these years’ parents have fought and pushed for change, and there are parents today who are continuing to fight for acceptance, inclusion and dignity for their children.
Q: What makes you believe we need to keep pushing for acceptance?
JW: As an example, in 2014 there was a lawsuit in California involving an autistic boy who was considered to be a trouble maker. Neighbors sued and were also worried about their reduced property values. This action eventually drove the family from their home of seven years.
Q: So is your message that history will keep repeating itself if people don’t step up and make the change?
JW: Absolutely. It’s happening on the playgrounds, in the schools and the communities. There was bullying, judgment and disapproval at the time I taught these children. Unfortunately, it still happens a great deal to children who act or appear different in social or educational settings today.
Q: Ultimately, what do you want your book to accomplish?
JW: I’d like professionals to be open to work with these children even if at times the techniques seem unconventional. I wish for all families and parents to learn to accept their children and guide them to express their talents. And I’d like families, neighbors and the general public to see these children in a warmer light after reading my book and interface with the special needs community. I frequently say that ‘this book reaches in from the heart outward to all children – they will be heard!’
For further information, please go to: http://www.drjoannewhite.com/more-heaven/