Community Champion: Tiffany Withers
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Tiffany Withers, Community Champion, is a very special teacher. After 13 years in the corporate field, she knew she was meant to do something else. She changed her career and has loved every minute since. She began by working at the local elementary school as first a substitute teacher and then becoming a teacher’s assistant full-time in special education. Now she is a special education teacher at Brandon Middle School, teaching 7th and 8th grade special education classes.
At 23 percent, Mississippi currently has the nation’s lowest four-year graduation rate for special-needs students. Some of the blame for this is on Mississippi’s tough requirements for obtaining a standard diploma. Currently, students with disabilities must meet roughly the same criteria as their non-disabled peers. A diploma opens doors to jobs, education, training, and military that otherwise are closed to students with special needs.
More teachers like Withers are needed to teach and in other ways mentor special needs students. Withers has a passion for teaching special needs children and empowering them with self-esteem and confidence to accomplish what they set out to do.
“There are laws in place requiring that each student with a disability be given a free and appropriate public education along with non-disabled peers in the least restrictive environment no matter what the disability. In working with 3rd grade students that have a wide range of disabilities, I have learned why those laws were desperately needed and what happens when those laws aren’t followed. It’s allowed me to become a more informative advocate for my students as well as their parents or guardians.”
The majority of Wither’s students have Autism that ranges from non-verbal to some very high functioning Autism. Other health issues include Down’s syndrome, Chromosomal Deletion and mobility issues requiring canes or wheelchairs.
Describing her class, Withers says, “This is my second year in this classroom. When I took over, these kids would never look up. They were very unsure of themselves. So, my first thing when I came in was ‘I’ve got to get their self-esteem up. I’ve got to make them believe in themselves.’ They are just as good as any other kid walking on this campus. They have grown by leaps and bounds. Now they are going out—they take a computer class, they go out to PE, art and music. I’ve gotten them involved with student council and they are going to start helping with fundraisers. One’s going to be on the baseball team and one is going to run cross country. It’s been so cool because they walk with their heads held high now. They believe in themselves finally. It is so much fun.”
She continued, “Every one of these kids in many places across the world would just be put in a classroom where they would color. They aren’t pushed. These kids are so capable. They might not be able to be a CEO or a major football player but my kids can be a part of the community. They can be contributors. They can hold down jobs. Every one of these kids, even my non-verbal child, is going to have a positive impact. They are so able. I hate that they are described as disabled. They aren’t. They are so able. They are just amazing kids. It’s my job, and the fun part of it is teaching other teachers at the school that they are able. The teachers here are phenomenal. They work them into their science classes. They had a big presentation about getting rid of the “r” word (retarded) and my kids were on video where they answered questions about things like that. They were able to say “Hey, I have been called that before and it hurts my feelings.” One of them said, “I’ve gotten used to it.” That’s my job to stop it so you know I teach teachers and we go out in the community and I teach them how to appropriately communicate.”
Withers feels called to her work as a special needs teacher. She had obstacles to overcome to become a teacher, including having a liver transplant. Fighting her own battles, she completed her degree and entered the classroom with a commitment to make a difference. Her students are her mission and as she says, “I have to get them ready for the world and I have to get the world ready for them.”
“Somedays I go home thinking maybe I didn’t teach them anything today but I got them here, I loved them, I helped them believe in themselves and I am going to send them home. That’s pretty good. I am the blessed one. I am so lucky to have these kids every day,” reflected Withers regarding her role.
Withers communicates “One of the things that I had to do when I first started is that I had to figure out each individual child. None of my nine children this year are the same. So I found out their strengths and I found out their weaknesses. We’ve enhanced the strengths and we have worked on the weaknesses, those little weak areas. We celebrate AH-HA moments where it may be something like one of my students just learned how to write his last name. He is so proud of himself. He is signing his last name on everything, every piece of paper we put in front of him. Then I have a child and she is Autistic and she is just brilliant. She loves to share stories that she has read in her fiction books. We celebrate those little bitty moments that other people don’t get to. Those little bitty successes. I think if you promote those little successes, the child feels more self-esteem and becomes willing to try things that are maybe a little bit hard for him.”
On dealing with weaknesses, she said, “It’s all about how you treat their weak moments, when they don’t get something right or they get frustrated. It’s all how you handle it. If I react that it’s a bad thing or that I am disappointed, they will put it on themselves. If I skip right over and say “It’s okay. We are going to work on it. It’s no big deal. We don’t have to get it today. We might get it tomorrow.” Maybe tomorrow is going to be a great day. I had phenomenal teachers when I was growing up. I went to a very small school and I still remember my teachers. I got that nurturing from them. I just pass it on.”
“I am so lucky to be with these kids. Sometimes I think this is just a dream that I don’t get to be the lucky one who comes and works with these kids every day. At school, I am mom, nurse, counselor, bobo healer and confider and I get to wear a lot of hats. I have some great parents that let me go to things outside of school. So, it just when they come by even years after they have been in my class and say “Man, I really want you to come see me do that. Will you be there?” They know that I will. It’s amazing. And, for the parents too. They will contact me and say ‘I got to let you know what he did.’ It’s those instances when they haven’t forgotten about me and I’ve had a positive impact that it is really such a blessing.”
Next month will be five years. I had an emergency liver transplant. I got sick. For four years, I was an assistant teacher and taking classes at USM. I was in advertising for 13 years then I decided to come out and go back to school to teach special ed. I got an assistant’s job and loved it. Was taking online course through Southern. Getting my degree and I just got sick. Really, really sick. I ended up at Oshner in New Orleans and they said okay you are in liver failure. We’ve got to do a transplant. It was bad but when I woke up and figured out what was going on, I had already had the transplant. I had a whole new world I had to learn. I was in a wheel chair for a while. I went to a walker. I went to physical therapy. I had to learn how to take care of myself now that I have this new organ. I remember my surgeons coming in and saying ‘What is your career?’ I said, ‘Right now I am assistant but I am in school to get my teaching degree so I can teach special ed.’ They said, ‘Oh no. X it all out. You need to change your major. Schools are germ filled. You don’t need to be around that, especially kids with special needs. There was like seven of them in my room. I thought I am not going to argue with them because they just saved my life. I let them get out of the room and I told my husband and my mother. “I know that is what I am supposed to do. I will just have to take precautions.” By the grace of God, everything is going good. I go next month for my five year checkup.”
“It’s so cool because with these kids, I can tell them I have been in a wheel chair for a while. I had to use the ramps. I had to use a walker because my legs weren’t strong enough. I am on medicine every day and I have to go for checkups. That’s what a lot of these kids do. They have to go to physical therapy. I have one on a cane and two babies in wheelchairs. They have to take medicines. We’ve been able to talk about that. I have been able to minister to people through organ transplant because of my experience. I connect with kids and their parents because of what I went through. It gives us that connection that a lot of teachers don’t have. I just turn it around for the good and say don’t let it stop you. You got to see I am overcoming obstacles every day that they said I couldn’t do. It’s the same way with these kids. Don’t put a label on them. Don’t call them disabled because they are not. It’s been amazing to work with these kids. They can relate to somebody and it opens up a whole new door. Well, the doctor said this, this and this. But, guess what. I am here. Nobody should be able to tell you that you can’t and if they do, you work hard to prove them wrong.”
“I got teacher of the year this year. That was a humbling experience. I don’t know that I deserved it because I enjoy my job so much. I get to come to school and work with these kids. I love coming to work every day. I’ve been in those positions where I just don’t want to go to work today. Advertising. Adult clients are so much harder to deal with. Even over the summer, I said to my parents “Look, I am missing my kids. Can I take them to a movie?” So we met up one day at the movies and had a great time. There again the connecting was outside of school. It’s all about passion. That’s my passion. Some people go to work just to make a pay check. Mine, this is my work. It’s where I am supposed to be. I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing. So it’s a great reward.”