Shannon Haddad, a speech and language pathologist at Ashton Elementary School and the 2021-22 Sarasota County Schools’ Elementary Teacher of the Year, recalls unintended comical results of techniques that she quickly improvised to teach her youngest students when the pandemic first shifted classrooms from campuses to home computers.
“My preschoolers’ online group lessons targeting speech and language skills sometimes looked like clips from ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos,’” Haddad says.
When teaching a child how to articulate and form certain sounds, Haddad often asks the student to imitate her as she makes exaggerated movements and sounds.
“I would use a tongue depressor or put my mouth close to the screen to show them how to form a sound, and they would do the same. My computer screen was filled with little kids making funny mouths and sticking out their tongues,” she says.
When the small children slid down, all Haddad could see were their eyes and foreheads until arms and hands appeared as the children tried to reach through the screen and touch her or each other or the object she was holding.
“That was cute, but at the same time it was moving to see how much they craved personal interaction and how badly they needed in-person physical cues,” Haddad says.
Haddad and her colleagues are in the third school year of dealing with unparalleled challenges stemming from the pandemic that first caused school shutdowns in the spring of 2020 and drove educators to scramble to learn new teaching platforms and the technicalities of remote and concurrent teaching.
The crisis had a greater impact on Haddad’s students, whose diagnoses include various disorders such as childhood apraxia of speech, autism spectrum disorders, resonance, cleft palate, cerebral palsy, developmental delays, cognitive impairments, and attention-hyperactive deficit disorders.
“All of us in education have been challenged as never before, but imagine how difficult and disorienting it was for my students who rely on visual cues that were hidden behind face masks,” Haddad says.
As an exceptional student team member, Haddad collaborated with her fellow teachers and principal to research and create lessons and therapies to keep students’ learning on track.
Their collective efforts succeeded.
“Despite the overwhelming obstacles, I am ecstatic to say that students on my speech and language caseload made some of their most substantial gains in progress and performance since I have been working in this role,” Haddad says.
She is happy to be back teaching on campus and working with individuals and small groups of students in her therapy classroom and their classrooms.
Advocating for students with speech and language disorders is Haddad’s priority as a teacher, and a big chunk of her time is spent meeting with colleagues and parents to try to get students needed services and equipment.
“I want to teach my students who have trouble speaking to find and use their voices, and that they can do anything they dream despite their disability,” Haddad says.
Haddad recalls a former student whose perseverance illustrates her passion for teaching exceptional students.
“This intelligent young man had cerebral palsy and it was very difficult for him to form simple words,” Haddad says.
“We advocated for him and the district provided a vocal assistive technology device that sort of speaks for him. Seeing that student being heard and understood and conversing for the first time was amazing.”
She points to a former teacher whose example and encouragement inspired Haddad to advocate for the young man and students like him.
“Mrs. Hanaway, my sixth-grade language arts teacher at Sarasota Middle School, exuded kindness and compassion. She taught me to be confident and encouraged me to enter a speech contest, which I won,” Haddad says.
“She was an example of what it means to love your job and make a difference in a child’s life.”
Though Haddad has a master’s in speech and hearing science and numerous specialty credentials, she isn’t finished learning.
“There is always new research about disorders, and I thirst for knowledge about programs and strategies that will help me be a better resource and support for my students,” Haddad says.
While the job of an elementary school speech and language pathologist is extremely satisfying, it also is demanding, with too little time and too few professionals to support students and families.
The biggest challenge Haddad and her colleagues face this year is a critical shortage of speech and language pathologists available to work in schools with fragile exceptional students.
“Our students deserve the best qualified and skilled people to provide the support services they need to succeed,” Haddad says.
“I invite the community to help us raise awareness about the importance of and need for highly qualified speech and language professionals in our schools,” Haddad says.
“To potential candidates: I promise that this will be your most rewarding job.”
About the Education Foundation of Sarasota County
The Education Foundation of Sarasota County sponsors the Ignite Education: Teacher of the Year annual recognition in conjunction with Sarasota County Schools. The Education Foundation is an independent, philanthropic organization whose mission is to enhance the potential of all students, promote excellence in teaching, and inspire innovation in education, guided by strategic philanthropy and the belief that education changes lives. Find more at EdFoundationSRQ.org.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Advocating for exceptional students to find their voice