In Ginny Gaspar’s class, everyone learns
When Ginny Gaspar was in middle school, there was a child living in her Lombard neighborhood who, to some, wasn’t supposed to be there.
It was the 1970s. People like this girl weren’t usually discussed, they were institutionalized. The parents of this neighbor girl, little Eileen, made a curious decision.
“They were going to keep their daughter home with them and raise her as part of the family,” Gaspar recalled. “She was their child.”
Eileen had Down syndrome. In the coming years, Gaspar watched Eileen thrive. Her successes were more than an accomplishment. They were an inspiration.
“Growing up with her and learning how she did things differently made me have this desire to become a teacher,” Gaspar said.
So she did. It started with spending time helping in a special needs classroom during her senior year of high school. After getting her general education teaching degree, she headed west with dreams of being a special-education teacher in the mountains of Montana. When she arrived, Montana schools were on strike. So she kept going until she hit Oregon.
Not certified to teach special education in that state, Gaspar settled into a role teaching all subjects at a private elementary school.
A call from home came three years later. Gaspar’s father had cancer, and he wasn’t going to beat it. She came home to Illinois and landed a job teaching at Thompson Middle School in St. Charles. As the Chicago Cubs celebrated their first World Series title in 108 years, Gaspar logged her 36th year of teaching math and social studies.
Abuzz with the prospects of a Cubs victory parade the following day, her sixth-grade class strutted into the room and self-selectively divided themselves among three work areas: red, yellow and green. It was time to divide some fractions.
Students at the green table believed they’d mastered the process. Yellow table students had a good feel for the invert-and-multiply technique, but they weren’t ready to proclaim green table mastery. Red table students needed a little extra time with Gaspar before next week’s test.
There was no shame on the faces of the students at the red table. Next week any one of them could find themselves at the green table when the class moved on to the next problem solving technique.
Admitting you needed more help would not result into permanent banishment the way many students were handled back when Gaspar was in school, or if you were born into special needs like her childhood neighbor Eileen.
“When we were in school, there was the Blue Birds and the Red Birds,” Gaspar said. “And you knew which one was which, and you didn’t want to be in the wrong one. That’s one of the big things that’s changed in education. Kids are not put into groups all of the time where there’s a stigma attached to being in one group or the other. I
“In this topic, maybe you did very well. But in a different topic, you didn’t do as well. So we’re going to move you around. And the kids are OK with it, much more so than the adults are sometimes.”
The poster on the wall behind the red table reads: “In this classroom, mistakes are expected, respected and inspected.”
“I try to build a culture where it’s OK to tell me you can’t do it,” Gaspar said. “I’d much rather you tell me that than try to fake your way through it and end up getting frustrated and crying at home. These kids are OK with the idea that I need to know how to do this. And a big part of that is knowing how to ask for help.”
Gaspar is not specifically a special-education teacher as she once dreamed. But there are students in this math class and Gaspar’s other classes who have unique learning challenges. They aren’t singled out in any noticeable way either. That integration is another big change Gaspar has witnessed and welcomed as the most senior teacher at Thompson Middle School.
“The other kids don’t even blink an eye about it,” Gaspar said. “There’s no, ‘It’s not fair,’ whining about someone getting treated differently. They understand that they have classmates that have different needs.”
On the most challenging days of reaching a student with special needs, or just a student who needs a little more time at the red table, Gaspar thinks back to the little girl on her block who could have been placed into an institution if born into most of the households on her street. Eileen could learn in her own way, and so can every other child she’s ever encountered.
“Eileen made me understand that kids with special needs have special needs, but they’re not different,” Gaspar said. “Some people’s brains are wired different. They have those constraints, but there’s still things they can learn and do. They have value to them.
“Today, everybody is educated, and we’re going to accept them into our schools. With a good teacher, there’s no one who can’t learn.”