Gross has taught special education for nine years; she’s currently at Del Norte High School in San Diego.
She’s passionate about including students with disabilities in more academically challenging classes.
“The time is right in our culture and our country to really more fully embrace students with significant disabilities,” Gross said.
Gross ultimately wasn’t the National Teacher of the Year winner. Sydney Chaffee, a high school humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Massachusetts, was named the National Teacher of the Year last month. She’s the first honoree from a charter school.
Gross, and the other three Teacher of the Year finalists, spoke with The 74 in early March when they were in Washington, D.C., for their final interviews.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The 74: Why did you become a teacher?
Gross: After college I took a job working in a group home for adults with developmental disabilities. Most of the adults were mid-30s to 50s. I loved working in their house.
One of the residents in the house I supported at the time had Down syndrome and also Alzheimer’s. There were days, since I was a new staff person to him, that he didn’t remember me and would get confused, but I remember sitting there with him at the kitchen table one day after he got home from work, and he was talking to me about his teacher and how his teacher had taught him how to sign his name in cursive, and how important it is to write in cursive. And then he demonstrated that he could still sign his first and last name in cursive.
I just realized then what kind of impact a teacher can have on somebody’s life. I loved working with the individuals in the house, and so I decided that I needed to go back to school and become a special education teacher so I could support younger students, younger people with disabilities, and help them hopefully learn skills that would last a lifetime.
The National Teacher of the Year has a sort of platform she advocates during her year in office. What would yours be?
My national platform would be inclusion for students with significant disabilities. In the 1970s, we authorized, as a federal government, legislation that we now call the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. But that was the first time that students with severe disabilities were in schools, and that’s really not that long ago.
We’ve seen this big shift, I think, in understanding people with disabilities and understanding their strengths and that they’re assets to our schools and to our communities and our families.
From my schooling and my experiences working with students, I think that the time is right in our culture and our country to really more fully embrace students with significant disabilities in our general education classes and start focusing more on building those students’ academic skills and access to that grade-level content. We’ve done a lot of work in the social inclusion department, but there’s a lot of great research, almost four decades’ worth, that shows kids with severe disabilities can learn in general education academic classes.
What advice would you give policymakers as they’re beginning ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) implementation, particularly for students with severe disabilities?
The accountability part is really key. I started teaching with the implementation of No Child Left Behind, and that was really the first time where we required states to report on their testing scores for students with severe disabilities … As a classroom teacher and someone who is advocating for inclusion, that gives me a leg to stand on when I go talk to administrators about why kids need to be in academic, grade-level classes, that we didn’t have before. I think focusing on designing assessments that align to standards, and that are also accessible to students with severe disabilities, is really important to show that there’s growth happening.
Education has become a very contentious issue, particularly since the start of the year. What would you advise President Trump and Secretary DeVos to do as they’re moving forward?
In my experience, being somebody who’s trying to include kids in general education, a lot of times I’m working with colleagues who’ve never done that before. I think kind of in some way I have a unique voice for President Trump and Secretary DeVos. I’m used to working with people who haven’t done it before.
I think what’s really powerful is that you have to see it. You have to see it in a lot of different classrooms to really understand what’s happening and to understand the dynamics of our public school classrooms and to understand the dynamics of the communities those schools operate within and to really believe in them, to see their potential, to see their strengths, to see the areas that as a federal government we can work on to better support schools. I’ve been teaching for 10 years, and I still go into classrooms on my school site or classrooms in other schools, and I’m like, “Oh, let me take notes! I can totally do that better!”
I think teaching as a whole, good teachers want to be better and want to do better. I think we’ve realized in 2017 that we have to show our legislators that. We have to show our education leaders what good teaching is and what best practices look like, from research to practice, and how policies affect the classroom. I just think you have to visit schools everywhere, because schools in D.C. look different than schools in Florida. Schools in Florida look different than schools in California ...
What do you wish the public knew about your classroom or your students?
I really think I would love for policymakers to know the value of IDEA and to know what a game-changer that is for students with severe disabilities. To know that it’s never been fully federally funded, so that has placed a huge burden on states and local education agencies.
There is so much potential in our students with significant disabilities to learn and to really also be a part of the college and career conversation. I would love to see us include those students in that conversation so that they can also contribute to their communities, they can have competitive pay, integrated employment. They can have what we all want, this inclusive, welcoming, successful life, and I think we should want that for all of our kids.
What’s been your best moment teaching?
I don't know that there’s one moment, just because every day is so unique. I think for me, my first students were seventh-graders. Through this Teacher of the Year process, I’ve reconnected with some of them and been able to follow them on Facebook now that they’re graduated from high school and adults in the community, seeing how education and how inclusion has shaped their lives.One of my students wrote a recommendation letter for me for Teacher of the Year, talking about how being included gave her these skills that she now uses as a community college student, and she’s able to navigate accommodations, and she has a job where last week she was named employee of the month at the local town grocery store. To just see that she still remembers things we talked about in seventh grade … I think that, knowing that I got to play a small role in shaping who she is, is really powerful. I’m so proud of all my students, so it’s really hard to pick just one.