A normal Monday in Lourdes Reyes’ classroom at the First Avenue School begins with a pleasant routine.
Her six students, a mix of first and second-graders with autism, eat breakfast quietly at their desks then brush their teeth in the restroom. Then they return to class, as they did one Monday morning this month, to recite the days and months and share highlights from the weekend — a trip to the zoo, playtime in the park, an evening bike ride.
“Alright,” Reyes said in a soothing tone as she moved the lesson along. “Everybody had a good weekend.”
But on Monday, May 7, things were far from normal.
That was when the district’s interim superintendent arrived unannounced in her classroom bearing balloons and a bouquet, with television cameras in tow, to inform her that she was Newark’s 2018 Teacher of the Year. Reyes tearfully accepted the award as her daughter, a teacher at Elliott Street School, looked on. Then she walked into the hallway, where dozens of students cheered and chanted her name.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Reyes told Chalkbeat during a recent interview.
In college, Reyes had studied to become a social worker. But after her son, Ishmail, was born with autism, she wanted to learn more about his condition. Before long, she had earned a master’s degree in special education and become a teacher of students with autism — a job she’s held for 21 years.
After two decades, she has yet to slow down. Every day after class she begins her second job as an early-intervention specialist, visiting families’ homes to work with young children suspected of having disabilities. After finishing around 8:30 p.m., she takes a late-night walk with her youngest son — a routine that, along with a healthy new diet, helped her lose 65 pounds over the past year.
Reyes stays just as busy at school. In addition to academic lessons, she teaches her students life skills like tying their shoes and cooking — sometimes on a portable stove, which Reyes used one day this year to cook green eggs and ham. In April, which is National Autism Awareness Month, she helped raise $2,300 for the school’s autism program and organized a performance where her students sang Disney songs. Reyes performed alongside wearing the red hat and spotted pants of Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl from “Toy Story.”
Principal Jose Fuentes, who was part of the 10-person leadership team at First Avenue that nominated Reyes for her award, called her “one of the pillars of the school.” She extends herself far beyond her own classroom, showing colleagues and parents how to challenge and support students with autism, Fuentes said.
“She’s giving new light to the possibilities of what it means to be an educator,” he said. “That’s Reyes.”
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you get into teaching?
When my second son was born, Ishmail, he was born with autism.
I was first of all shocked that I had an autistic son. It was very difficult and devastating for all of us. My husband and I had to go for counseling. It was very hard. But then we overcame it. I decided I’m going to take something negative and make something positive out of it.
So I went to graduate school and I took classes on special ed. I loved it and so I took another class. One class led to another.
Then I started volunteering at my son’s school. I was there all the time. In the evenings my husband would get home, he’d watch the kids, I’d go and take my class.
Next thing you know, in two years I completed a master’s in special ed.
How has being the parent of a child with autism shaped the way you teach?
Everything I still do today is focused on, “What if this was my son?”
I think that’s what makes me a little different. Like if I was doing this for him, how would I teach it?
What have you learned about what it takes to be an effective teacher of students with autism?
You can’t feel sorry for a child. Just because they have a disability does not mean that they can’t do something. You have to put that aside and show them in a way that tough love to get them to master the skills. Which is hard for some of the parents to do.
We have to do a lot of what the parents don’t do. For instance, tooth brushing, that’s a life skill. At home they say, “He doesn’t want to brush his teeth.” But they do it here every morning.
It sounds like a big part of your job is working with parents.
I give them my cell number. They call me at all times.
Sometimes [a student’s mother] will say, “It’s a rough morning. He didn’t want to change. I’m sending you the uniform in the book bag.” Then when he comes in, we transition him. When we do toothbrushing we say, “You need to change now.”
Then when it’s 2:45, “You don’t want to wear it? OK, let’s go change you. Put on your jeans, go on the bus.” Happy trooper.
How are you able to make progress with students who come in without many academic skills?
It’s ongoing, and it’s repetitive. Teaching the skills. Pulling them out, teaching them [through] individualized instruction.
And it happens also with the assistance of the aides. I have four great aides. None of this could happen without them.
Ms. [Rasheedah] Jacobs, guess how many years she’s been with me. Fourteen. When I came here and interviewed, I said, “I’ll take the job under the condition that Ms. Jacobs could come with me.” She really, really is a great teacher. I call her a teacher, not even an aide. She’s my right hand.
Can you think of a student whom you had a lot of success with?
Last year, I had one of my highest functioning students. She has Asperger’s. What a thrill to have that little girl. Oh my gosh.
Every week the principal gives the word of the week. She memorized and knew every single word from September to June. And recited it in an assembly, with a sentence for each word. She’s unbelievable!
We had a student [at Quitman Street Community School] who had a band on his esophagus, and he had a feeding tube in kindergarten. We couldn’t believe it — he was in diapers.
I was like, “If we can get this little boy to be toilet trained, that will be a success.” Do you know we mastered that? We did it.
How do you know if you’ve been successful by the end of the year?
Seeing [a student] who didn’t know the letters of the alphabet, seeing him writing sentences, filling in blanks, reciting words.
Knowing [a different student] can tie his shoes. Knowing he can brush his teeth.
Knowing that parents are happy with the progress of their students. Them sharing with me the change in their child once they started coming into my classroom. Parents telling me, “Oh, that’s not the same kid who was in the school last year. That’s a different child.”
What’s your advice to teachers who are just starting out?
Have a lot of patience. Be real devoted.
And do not look at a student with autism as a person who is weak. Have high expectations that they are capable of doing everything and anything with the right accommodations.
It can be done, but it takes someone with dedication, sensitivity, and also someone who does not feel sorry for a child. Anything is possible. There are no limits.