Special educator helped many over 23 years
FERRISBURGH — On Tuesday, many Ferrisburgh Central School teachers wore the same ID tag while they supervised the events like egg-balancing relay races and Zumba dancing during the school’s annual Field Days, which celebrated the fast-approaching end of the school year.
Those ID tags bore the photo and name of FCS special educator Alice Walker, and they were celebrating the Charlotte resident’s 23-year tenure at the school — the end of which is also fast approaching.
Walker, a 64-year-old mother of two and grandmother of an 18-month-old boy, began working in 1988 as the school’s only special educator and is stepping down at the end of this school year after 23 years.
FCS Principal JoAnn Taft-Blakely joked that she is in denial about Walker’s departure because Walker has been so valuable.
“She will truly be missed,” Taft-Blakely said. “She’s been a wonderful part of our community.”
Walker has key assets for the complex field of special education, the principal said, starting with a strong background that includes a master’s degree from St. Michael’s College.
“She’s got an incredible amount of knowledge, just about reading and the foundations of the skills that kids need,” “(She has) the whole background knowledge of what’s developmentally appropriate for kids, what the building blocks need to be for them to move forward.”
And, Taft-Blakely said, Walker has the calm presence to reassure both students and anxious parents.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her rattled in the four years I’ve been here,” she said. “She’s always incredibly busy, but she shows up at a meeting, she’s calm, she’s patient, she’s thorough. She can explain it to parents in a way that they can understand it in a way that their child may not be learning, but it’s OK because there are things we can do about it … We’re going to help them. We’re going to make it a positive experience for them.”
Walker, a native of Verona, N.J., moved to Vermont with her husband, who teaches at St. Michael’s College. After staying at home with her son and daughter when they were younger, she began working outside the home in the mid-1980s. She spent two years commuting to a teaching job in Northfield before FCS hired her in 1988.
Walker said her career choice was almost instinctive.
“When I was in college it was a new field. It’s something I think I was always interested in, working to help others,” she said. “I think it was just a natural thing for me to go into special education.”
She laughed when asked why FCS proved to be her last career move.
“I never thought I would last five (years),” she said. “I enjoy the work. I really enjoy working with those students. It’s always nice to see them grow and prosper and learn, and find different ways to meet their needs. It’s sometimes a challenge, but it’s very rewarding.”
Walker also appreciated the school itself.
“It’s always been a pleasant place to be,” she said. “There has always been a supportive administrations, and teachers who really care about students. They don’t let students slip through the cracks. They make sure students get the services they need.”
The job also presented challenges. As the only FCS special educator for many years, and as one of two for the balance of her tenure, Walker — like other special educators in small Vermont schools — did not enjoy the luxury of becoming a specialist. Her job description has included helping those with visual, hearing or other physical impairments; health impairments; behavioral and emotional issues; and learning impairments.
Often, that has meant consulting with outside experts and performing other research.
“I think of the years I taught every type of disability that’s covered under the regulations … In Vermont you take care of all kinds of students, with all kinds of needs,” she said. “That’s a challenge, but that’s interesting, too. If you have a student who has more unique needs you really have to study up and find out as much as you can about that disability and work with that.”
Walker’s empathy for her students has kept her going when work piled up, especially when she was the only special educator on hand.
“I think it’s still hard to use that term disability, because they’re really not disabled in any other way, but they have some learning issues,” Walker said. “It’s a hard term to use … Learning differences would be a better way of phrasing it, I think.”
Walker might do some tutoring, volunteering or traveling in the future, but her immediate plans include simply spending more time with family, including that grandson, who will soon be moving from the Albany, N.Y., area to Rhode Island.
In the meantime, she admits her last few days are emotional, but said her work keeps her too busy to spend much time contemplating retirement.
“I haven’t had time to think about it too much,” she said. “But I will miss saying I’m a special ed teacher.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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