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NEA News

What I've Learned: Acceptance of Students with Disabilities is Growing

An instructional paraeducator in Massachusetts teaches students how to harvest vegetables.
Published: January 8, 2015

Educators may spend their careers preparing lessons, but often the most memorable are those they learn themselves. With that in mind, NEA Today asked school staff – everyone from classroom teachers and bus drivers to guidance counselors and school nurses – to share the everyday lessons they’ve picked up along the way in a series called “What I’ve Learned.”

Nancy Burke is an instructional paraeducator. For 13 years, she has taught in the multi-support and life skills programs for Haverhill High School in Haverhill, Mass. Last year, Burke participated in the farm-to-school program, which taught her students how to grow and harvest vegetables.


I have learned that even if a child has a disability, they can still learn and do things above and beyond what was expected of them.

For many of the medically involved students I work with, gardening was something they might never do. ... They sit in wheel chairs, and digging in the dirt is something they could never do because they can’t reach the ground. I designed the handicap-accessible garden, and we installed raised garden beds so children can drive right up to the garden and plant or pick what they have grown.

Nancy Burke (right) and student Taylor Warren (left) in the Haverhill High School garden. Nancy Burke (right) and student Taylor Warren (left) in the Haverhill High School garden.

We had two raised garden beds: One was a salsa garden. The other was a stew garden. In each garden bed, every student planted two plants and seeds in the spring. In the fall, we invited folks in to see our occupational therapy class where they learned life skills by chopping the veggies they grew in the garden and making Texas Caviar.

I’ve learned that, in the many years I have been working in special education, I have seen more acceptance of our children. Teenagers now volunteer in our classroom and read, sing songs, or help with lessons. It’s so wonderful for them to be with their peers and be accepted for who they are.

I’ve learned that, in order to do our jobs successfully, we must work as a team all the time. Communication is so important. Every staff member is valued! Everyone plays an important role that helps another.

I’ve learned that every day offers something new, and I often have Kodak moments! It’s always the littlest things, and they always make you smile. Some days can be tough and you’re always running around, but when you get that smile, it’s all worth it!

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.