A friend of mine suggested that I share my story of how I got my BCBA certification. I’ve shared bits and pieces over the past year and a half on my instagram account, but word limits always seem to get in the way. I had the opportunity to be a guest on a podcast and share another little piece of the story and so it just feels like it is the right time to share it all… every nitty gritty detail. It’s not a fairy tale story by any means. It’s real, raw, and relatable (I hope) for others out there. So buckle up y’all…. this is a long one.
My first year of teaching, I was thrown into the world of special education and everything that came with it. Paperwork, lesson plans, supervising paras, data collection, behavior, communication. You name it, it probably happened that first year, including bullying from others around me in my school community. The staff members involved had been on the campus for years and I had not. I didn’t know how to handle it or who I could go to for assistance in resolving it, so I did nothing. I tried to keep my head down and stay in my classroom. There were tears so many times because this was not the dream I had envisioned for that first year of teaching.
At the end of the year, I had the opportunity to request a different position on the same campus and I took it. If I thought I was unprepared for my first year, I was even more unprepared for this. You see, I had thought I was going to be assisting with resource and inclusion students, but the first week of school we had students enroll that needed a self-contained classroom and we didn’t have one on our campus. By that time I had decided to pursue a Masters degree in behavior disorders. The principal assigned me to this classroom and I began my journey within the self-contained classrooms for students with behavior disorders. The district behavior specialists set up the classroom furniture and then I didn’t hear from them again for the majority of the year. I was totally and completely on my own. I didn’t know the first thing about trauma informed care and was relying solely on what little experience I gained from the year before. It was rough. I could paint a picture for you of the behaviors I saw on a daily basis but I won’t. If you’ve spent any time in education, it’s likely you can imagine it.
By the end of that year, I felt defeated. The icing on the cake… a growth plan. My appraiser that year felt that I was lacking in several areas and my own lack of self-confidence told me that she was right. Instead of trying to prove that she was wrong, I accepted it. I swore up and down that the following year I was going to be better, and do better.
I started the year working with students in inclusion that had behavioral needs and qualified for services as an individual with emotional disturbance or autism. Mid year I was moved back to a self-contained position by myself with no assistant. We really struggled and I experienced a break down… at work… in the middle of the day with students in my room. I knew it was time for me to move on from that job when my appraiser asked me “Why are you struggling mentally so much this year. The students you had last year were even harder.” The support that I so desperately needed from the beginning was finally given to me, but in the end it didn’t matter. A week after I informed my administration that I would be looking into job fairs and looking to move, the principal pulled me into her office and told me that they would be looking into not renewing my contract. The behavior specialist assigned to my classroom was livid. Together we had taken the two boys I worked with from daily extensive episodes of aggression to having more than 2 or 3 weeks go by between episodes in just a matter of months. Neither of us understood why it had happened. My best guess was they wanted to force my resignation before I had another job lined up so that they could start looking for a replacement, because in all honesty… it’s hard to find someone qualified that wants to work in that type of environment.
That conversation broke me. I lost what little confidence I had remaining in myself. It was an all time low for me. I gained even more weight than I had previously. I was angry all the time when I was at home and It almost ended my marriage. I sunk into a deep depression.
A New Beginning…
The next two years I worked at a school in the community that I now live in. Those weren’t easy years or pretty years. During that time I owned a clothing business online and was desperate for a way out of teaching. I was convinced that if I could sell enough or build a big enough MLM team, that I could leave teaching and that would be the end of my misery. I wasn’t convinced though that it would happen so the second year I began the coursework for BCBA certification. I wanted a second option in case that clothing business didn’t pan out.
Spring break of my 5th year teaching, I found out that the district was moving my program to another campus. The principal on that campus was retiring and I had major issues with a paraprofessional in my classroom. I made the decision to look again for another job. (This is where the story starts to look up.)
The Road Turned
I landed at one of the best schools I could ever have worked for. The principal was hands down AH-MAZING. The school district had a BCBA on staff which was the first time I had ever had the experience of working side by side with a BCBA and she was such an amazing support for me. In October of my 6th year teaching (2018-2019 school year) I began my supervised fieldwork hours under her supervision. I highly recommend that people find a support network or work for people who understand that teachers need reinforcement as well. Between my principal, my BCBA supervisor, and the team I worked with, my self-confidence began to grow again. We saw amazing progress with my students in the beginning and I fell back in love with teaching. If I needed something, all I had to do was ask my principal. We laughed together, cried together, and played together. It was a dream experience. I learned so much more than I ever thought possible that year.
The thing about mental health disorders is that they aren’t predictable and even when students are making progress, a crisis can occur within their brains, medications can stop working, body chemistry changes, sociological changes happen, and progress can come screeching to a halt. In March of that year, things fell apart for my students. As their teacher, I experienced it all with them. I won’t share details because of confidentiality, but it was the most intense levels of aggression I had experienced in the 5 years that I worked in classrooms like that one. I also had a district level staff member request 3 months of documentation because I was requesting a 1:1 placement for a child. We did everything right, but that person formed their own opinion without having behavior experience or listening to my administration or the BCBA and we were ultimately denied the assistance I needed. I made the decision to look for a teaching position outside of the ED world.
At the same time this was all happening, I finished my ABA courses and my supervisor had encouraged me to seek a part time position in a clinic or home therapy setting to continue my hours over the summer. I started working in a home therapy setting and fell absolutely in love. I decided to apply for a job in a middle school about 25 minutes from where I lived working with students who had autism and intellectual disabilities. They offered me the job and that’s where I am at currently. I finished my supervised fieldwork in September shortly after beginning that new job and tested for the BCBA certification in November 2019.
Lessons Learned on My Journey to Board Certified Behavior Analyst
Now instead of people questioning my judgement and telling me that I have areas to grow in, people on my campus look to me for guidance with the behavior. I’ve been called an expert in autism by administration. I have been a guest on numerous podcasts related to behavior as a content expert. My journey may have started out rough but I no longer doubt what I know was true from the beginning. I am a GREAT teacher. I believe with 100% certainty that I appreciate my accomplishments and what it stands for so much more than if I had not experienced the adversity that I did. My experiences have taught me what questions to ask in an interview, how to judge whether the campus administration is an appropriate fit for me, and how to stand up for myself and my students
If you are reading this and going through a hard time, I want you to know that it doesn’t have to stay that way. Ask for help, look for a change, seek out the learning, and know that your worth isn’t determined by anyone but you. People will have opinions about you, and that’s their prerogative. The biggest lesson I have learned along the way is that as long as you are doing what is ethical and right for your students, their opinions can’t define you.