Autism Angel: Bobbi Jo Corcoran

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 Miss Beth, Miss Bobbi Jo & Miss Gina

Bobbi Jo Corcoran is my son’s middle school teacher.  We made the middle school leap this past fall, after riding the elementary school train for as long as we could.  I was anxious about the change – we’d had a great experience in elementary school, and I really appreciated the way Barrett’s school promoted inclusion.  I already had a child in middle school and it’s tough – so I assumed it would be extra hard on Bear.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  The classroom and teachers were fabulous and the administration was very supportive.  Besides, I think Barrett was ready to move on to bigger things.

I haven’t known Bobbi Jo for very long, but I can already tell we’re going to be friends for life.  She’s a very cool lady who has an extraordinarily big heart.  She’s also very chill, which is great for Bear – and for me.  I’m grateful for her dedication and creativity – and I’m very excited to see what she and her teaching partners, Miss Beth and Miss Gina, will come up with over the next couple years to help my son on his journey.

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What made you want to go into special education?

When I was in 2nd grade, my next door neighbor and best friend had a little sister named Heather.  She was in a wheelchair and couldn’t play with us.  One day I was home from school and I saw a bus pull up next door that was different than mine – Heather was getting on that bus!!!!  I was fascinated and wanted to know who Heather’s teacher was.  What did she learn?  What was she going to be when she grew up?  I asked everyone and finally my own speech teacher said that she would show me.  She took me to the special needs class at school and I can still remember, I was eight years old at the time, that I wanted to be the teacher in that class.  For the remainder of my time in school, I helped in that classroom.  I was also a peer buddy to the students.  The only other job I ever wanted was to be an Astronaut.

What kind of degree did you have to get?

I have a Bachelor of Science in Mild Intelligence and I’m one semester away from my Master of Education in Special Education.

What kind of certifications do you have?

I am certified

  • P-12 Special Education Adapted Curriculum
  • P-12 Special Education General Curriculum
  • P-4 & 5-8 Special Education Language Arts Cognitive
  • P-4 & 5-8 Special Education Math Cognitive
  • P-4 & 5-8 Special Education Reading Cognitive
  • P-4 & 5-8 Special Education Science Cognitive
  • P-4 & 5-8 Special Education Social Science Cognitive

I also still have my Special Education Para-Pro certification.

Why did you choose to focus on Autism, specifically?

Many times students with “behaviors” have a hard time finding someone to believe in them.  I’ve always felt like I had more patience than most people when it came to special behaviors.  Autism and I – we’re friends.  From the very first time I came face-to-face with a student on the spectrum, I knew where I belonged.  Every movement, exercise, sound, and stim that boy made fascinated me.  I wanted to know how and why his eyes kept speaking to me, without any sound coming from his mouth.

How long have you been teaching – total and in special education?

I’m a second year teacher.  I was an assistant in Pre-K for many years and a special education para-pro in for eight years.

Do you have any personal experiences (outside the classroom) with autism?

Only if you count the amazing friends I’ve gained through this journey.  I do have a friend who has a daughter with autism.  She calls me her “Autism Whisperer” friend.

What is the best part of your job?

Whenever a student achieves a big goal and I realize I’ve just helped change that child’s life forever.  When a student looks at me with “thank you” in their eyes and I literally see the stress relief. 

What are the challenges?

Knowing in your heart that a student can do or learn something, but is unable to figure out how he or she needs to learn it.  I’ve stayed awake many nights, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong or what I haven’t tried in order to help a student.  Each of my students owns property in my heart and I want more for them than any IEP could ever dictate.

As a special education teacher, do you ever feel left out by the regular ed staff?

Not really.  We all have a job to do in supporting our school.  Many mainstream educators don’t understand what we actually do in special education – or how we do it – and to be honest, I don’t know how or what they do.  But I do know that together we have the same goals – to educate our students.  I tried working in regular education once, but I was really bored because the students didn’t need me as much.

Do the parents drive you crazy?  Be honest!

I do sometimes get frustrated when we’ve worked really hard on something the parents have asked us to teach their child – and then the parents continue doing it for their child, because it’s easier than letting the student do it for themselves.

Also, I don’t know what to do when the parents cry.  I know that it can be emotional, learning that your child can or cannot do something, but I’m at a loss when they cry.  I’m a behavior person and I don’t know how to react to emotions.  Usually, I just change the subject.

**** Allie Note – guilty as charge.  I will try to hold back the tears in the future!

I love your classroom set up!  What things do you consider essential for your teaching environment?

We have spaces to work, play, be loud, be quiet, be in a group or be alone.  You have to have a place where the students can be themselves.  My students have sensory needs and they need to be alone at times.  I feel like the classroom environment that we have allows them to do that.  I believe the best part of our classroom is that each student is comfortable and secure in our environment.

In your opinion, what can schools do to promote awareness and inclusion of special needs students?

Both the staff and student body of our school are considerate and inclusive of special needs students.  I think that if a special education teacher wants their class to be included in an activity that the school is doing, then that teacher needs to include the school in what their classes are doing.  A great example of this is the Peer Buddy Program.  I think the peer program at our school is fantastic!!

***** Allie Note:  I cannot stress enough how much I love all the peer buddies who work in the class.  I know that I couldn’t do what they do when I was in middle school (and I tried, but failed).

Bear with Buddy

Bear working with one of his buddies.

What do you wish people understood about autism?

That it’s not a question of intelligence, it’s a question of how to communicate and understand the person. 

What have your students taught you?

The list is soooo long.

  • Things are not always as complicated as the world makes them out to be. 
  • No matter what I’m doing in the classroom, if the schedule indicates that it’s time for a snack break, then we take a snack break!
  • I make out a “First and Then” list for myself, every time I have college work to do.
  • To laugh when it’s funny and ask for help when it’s needed.
  • Every time I think I know it all, or have seen it all – something shows me that I still have a lot to learn.

How can parents help?

I’ve been very fortunate with the parents in my classes.  Once parents get a chance to know me, they really seem to understand that this is my passion and not just a job.  The parents I’ve worked with always support me and all of my crazy ideas.  The most important way that parents can help is to just keep the communication lines open by letting us know what’s going on in their lives outside of our building.  Tell us know what the plans are for the future and what they want to see their child accomplish.  Listen to my ideas and suggestions.  Have faith.

I know that special education teachers tend to get personally involved (and I know they’re not supposed to, but thankfully they do).  Is it hard to send them on their way?

Each one of my students becomes “mine.”  If I was ever told that I couldn’t get personally involved, I’d have to find a new profession.  I love that I get to stay with my students for a few years and see their growth, but it’s terribly hard to see them leave.  I love when parents bring them back to see me, after they’ve flown the coop!!

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You’re a Foster Parent, which I think is amazing and I imagine must be difficult – especially given what your work may sometimes be like.  How do you make the transition from work to home?

We’ve been blessed with our own children and also with other people’s children.  It’s not always easy, but the hope is that you can turn someone’s life around for the better – and that is worth any difficulty we may encounter.  Sometimes you have plans for your life and sometimes life has plans for you.  I have to say that when I get a chance to relax – I enjoy it!

As a middle school teacher, some of your job also includes teaching life skills.  Is it hard to take on the role as surrogate parent?

Life skills encompass so much and are essential to the student’s everyday life, as well as to their future.  It’s a challenge and a reward to teach them.  Most of the time, the life skills are the first thing that a parent notices or comments on when discussing progress.  I love it when I hear that something we’re doing at school makes life easier at home for the family.

Can you share a moment from a teaching experience that validated your choice to go into special education?

It’s not one moment – it’s a very weird series of moments.   For years, I had dreams of students, classes, hallways, and people that never made sense to me and I’d wake up confused.   After I started working at Sawnee last year and continuing at Liberty this year, when I have those dreams, the faces and places now make sense.  Each time I have one of those dreams, I get an overwhelming feeling of, “This is right – this is where I’m supposed to be.”

****Allie Note:   I love this!

How do you come up with CBI (community based intervention) trip ideas?

I asked the parents at the beginning of the year what they’d like to see their children experience on our community trips.   I mixed those requests with my own wishes for them, and because I’m a little competitive, I don’t want to do what others have done in the past.  I think I came up with some great concepts.  Each time we go on a CBI trip, I wonder if I made the right choice.  Luckily, every time (so far) we’ve returned from a trip, I’ve been absolutely amazed at how well it went.  The boys are fantastic.  They want to learn as much as we want to teach and show them.  Now I have to come up with more awesome ideas for the next few years!!!

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Bear and his class at the Wildflower Eatery, where they made bunch for their mothers.

You have wonderful peer buddies working with your students, what qualities do you look for when selecting the peers?

I tell them up front how hard it could be.  I tell them what I expect and that I mean business. They have to fill out an application that requires references.   If they don’t blink, I invite them to join us for a week.  We talk at the end of the week and discuss whether or not it’s a good fit for everyone.  So far, I’ve only had to turn away one student.

Barrett Questions:

I was truly terrified of the transition to middle school, but it went smoothly!  What do you attribute this to?

I believe the reason everyone transitioned to Middle School so well is that there are three of us (teachers) who are truly passionate about what we do.  Personally, I fell in love with all the boys the very first week.  They all knew that they were safe and loved.  Every one of them walked in that first week as if they belonged in our classroom – that hasn’t changed.  All the boys are very smart and I think they were ready for something new.  It’s part of growing up and maturing.

Give me your first impression of Barrett. 

LOL, I thought, “My first little preppy autistic boy!” His smile and his searching eyes were an immediate draw for me.  I did wonder if he ate though, he was so little.  I’ve since learned that he doesn’t stop eating!  He’s a charmer, a gentleman, and a stinker all wrapped up in a Barrett package!

I know it’s “only” been a year, but I’m guessing you must have a “bad” Barrett story.

I do have a teenage-boy-attitude story.

We’d been working on his drumming and singing – teaching him when it’s appropriate and when it’s not.  One day he was drumming at the lunch table, and I said “Barrett, no drumming while we are at the table.”  He stopped, but then started clapping.  I said, “Barrett, no clapping while we’re at the table.”  He stopped clapping – and started singing.  I said, “Barrett, no singing while we are at the table.” I was waiting for his siren to go off, but instead he stood up, stepped away from the table and started singing loud, while clapping at the same time!!!  Trying not to laugh I said, “Barrett you cannot eat your lunch while you are standing up.” He laughed and sat back down.

Give me a “good” Barrett story.

My favorite is probably when I was teaching another student how to add items together by using puzzle pieces.  Barrett was standing behind the other student, watching, after he’d turned in his own work.  I gave the other student a moment to have a reward while I turned away to type in the data on my sheet.  When I turned around, I discovered the numbers and pieces were correctly put into another problem.  I was about to have a moment of teacher excitement, when I noticed the student handing another puzzle piece to Barrett!  Barrett was the one creating the scene.

What do you think is Barrett’s most significant accomplishment this year?

It’s not something you can measure quantitatively – it’s more about the maturity he’s displayed.  He notices the other students and wants to help them.  He’s tasting new things and navigating the building on his own!  He now accepts schedule changes without his “siren.”  It all adds up to the young man that he is right now.  He’s also developed a charmer side that makes others smile.

BearandBobbieJo

Clearly, Bear LOVES Miss Bobbi Jo (this picture made me a wee bit jealous!).

Didn’t I tell you she was cool?  I just love that she thought Bear was preppy!  My mother would be so proud.  Since this interview, Bobbi Jo has been hard at work, getting the garden together for the boys that was made possible through her tenacity and California Pizza Kitchen’s generosity.  She’s also coordinating the celebration events – all of which I will highlight here in the next couple weeks.

Tell me about your middles school teachers.  Was the leap as nerve-wracking or you, as it was for me?

20 thoughts on “Autism Angel: Bobbi Jo Corcoran”

  1. You always write so beautifully, it is enjoyable to read. This time I also learned (although I think we all know) what truly special and dedicated individuals choose to be special teachers.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I already knew that Ms. Corcoran was special, but it’s great to read about it.

  3. Bobbi Jo is my cousin. Reading this brings tears to my eyes. I’ve known for a while she’s an awesome person, but reading your words makes me so proud! Thank you for sharing!

  4. BJ has a gift that few people have been blessed with, I cannot imagine her living her life any differently. Forsyth County is lucky to have her and her co-teachers on staff!!

  5. How lucky you are to have all these wonderful people in your life! And lucky they are to have a family that appreciates all the super work that they do!

  6. This story just made me tear up. Bobbi Jo and her staff are a true blessing. You are so lucky to have wonderful people to care for Bear.

  7. I love this and Bobbie Jo seems amazing. I very much hope that my son Tucker has similar wonderful, caring, loving teachers throughout his school years. He’s still in preschool, and we’ve been really blessed with who his teachers are thus far – I love knowing that people like Bobbie Jo are drawn to the middle-school years which I imagine to be the hardest (only because I was not a happy kid myself in middle school). Thanks for sharing her with us, Allison!

    1. Thanks Kristi. She is amazing and I feel so blessed, because overall, we have been very fortunate to have had wonderful teachers. Fingers crossed that it continues.

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