PBSPED Alumna and SPEDucator
“I wish I had ‘Someone Special’ when I was in school, and I strive to be that person for my students every single time I step onto campus.”
- Post-Baccalaureate Certificate, Special Education (PBSPED)
Where do you work?
This is my 8th year at Keaʻau Middle School where I am a special education teacher for a fully self-contained program that is designed for students with intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, and emotional disabilities.
I am also the Chair for the School Community Council, Garden Club Advisor, and I am on the school’s HMTSS team. I also serve on the DOE-HSTA Special Education Joint Committee, HSTA Hilo Chapter Executive Board, and am the Hilo Chapter Chair of the HSTA SHiNE Committee. I have the privilege of being the Hawaiʻi Council for Exceptional Children’s CAN Coordinator and look forward to all of the communities that these different roles allow me to be a part of.
How did you become involved in the COE SPEDucator Project?
A former field supervisor I had while in the College of Education PBSPED program sent an email encouraging me to apply. That application and the recommendations from my admin and my students’ parents led me to the most inspiring and impactful group of educators that I have ever had the opportunity to work with.
Briefly describe how your Māla Mana‘olana: A Garden of Hope project came about?
Māla Mana‘olana is the product of showing up to work each day trying to make a difference in our students’ lives. It was a passion project inspired by my students’ strengths and brought to life through networking with other educators in The SPEDucator Project, supportive admin, and my colleagues at Kea’au Middle School. I am so grateful for the opportunity to share our story in a wonderful video put together by Kai Media. In addition to growing a wide variety of food in the garden, students are also composting and making their own soil, growing and harvesting microgreens, drying and packaging seeds, and planting vegetable and herb starters to share with our KMS ʻohana.
Why did you choose to pursue a career in SPED?
I chose to become a special education teacher because I strongly believe that all students deserve to have someone who is going to work hard and be passionate about providing them the best educational experience possible. Many of our students come from extraordinary backgrounds and have an incredible story to share, and I believe it is my privilege to help them find their voice and the confidence to be the change we need in this world.
Who influenced you to become an educator?
My sister was a special education teacher for many years before becoming the Student Services Coordinator at her school. I had the privilege of working with her as an Educational Assistant while in undergraduate school, and I always admired the relationships she was able to form with the students who had the highest level of academic and behavioral needs. Students would see her years later and come and give her a hug and share all the good things that they have been up to after graduating, and I knew that she was the kind of teacher I wanted to be – one who was able to connect with kids, build their confidence, hold them to high expectations, and be Someone Special for them to turn to even beyond graduation.
What was the highlight of being in the PBSPED program?
Being a part of a cohort allowed me to form lasting relationships with teachers from across the state, a number of whom I know I can reach out to for ideas or support whenever I need. Our professors were top notch and went above and beyond the scope of our content to make sure that we were prepared for the field. The education I received gave me the knowledge and tools I needed to start my career with the HIDOE and the confidence to step up into various leadership roles within the special education and public school community.
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a SPED teacher?
Two things: First, find your people. Building community is key to teacher retention, and on your hardest days, having people to turn to for advice, support, or just a listening ear, is vital to avoiding teacher burnout. We need to help teacher candidates find their community prior to being in the field so that they have that support system in place before they find themselves overwhelmed and on the brink of burnout. Second, don’t stop loving kids and wanting to see them succeed. It is so easy to become stressed out by the long list of tasks on our plate as SPED teachers that you forget your WHY. Write down your WHY and post it somewhere in your classroom so that it is a visible reminder to you on those hard days.
What are your future plans?
I absolutely love being a special education teacher and creating opportunities for my students to shine. I am equally passionate about uplifting other educators in the field, mentoring beginning teachers, and advocating for what our special education community deserves. I am not sure where my future plans will take me, but I know that my heart and passion will always be here in the special education profession.
Tell us something your students don’t know about you.
Something that my students don’t know about me is that I was the student who had a difficult time behaving in school. Even if I got good grades, I used to spend recess doing detention, sitting in the In-School Suspension class, getting out-of-school suspension for fighting, and even getting kicked out of private school for behavior. I wish I had Someone Special when I was in school, and I strive to be that person for my students every single time I step onto campus.
Check out this video about Kristel’s passion project.