Teaching a personal experience for Hawkins
Editor's note: This is the third in a six-part series profiling the six finalists for this year's Crystal Apple teacher awards.
By RACHAEL GRAY
Amanda Hawkins always knew she wanted to help children.
When she was younger she wanted to be a pediatrician. Now, Hawkins is in her second year teaching special education at Charles O. Stones Intermediate Center.
"I knew I wanted to help kids," she said.
Hawkins is one of six finalists for the Crystal Apple Award, given annually to Finney County's top educators. The C.A.R.E. Task Force of the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce announced the 2011 finalists earlier this month. C.A.R.E. stands for Community Awareness and Recognition in Education.
The other five finalists are Rob Fabin of Kenneth Henderson Middle School, Kerri Steelman of Buffalo Jones Elementary School, Summer Miller of Garden City High School, Dawn Riggs of Buffalo Jones Elementary School, and Shanna Yox of Abe Hubert Middle School.
Hawkins said she wanted to work in special education because of a personal experience.
"I did a service learning project in eighth grade helping with Special Olympics. While these kids were playing sports, they won gold medals," she said.
Hawkins suffered from spina bifida at a young age. She was diagnosed early on and was able to have surgery, though she was in a wheelchair for at least two years periodically throughout her life, but was still able to play sports.
"With the help of my parents and others, I was able to do so many things," she said.
Hawkins decided to study special education. She earned a bachelor's degree that combined kindergarten through 12th-grade cognitive impairment, kindergarten through sixth-grade general elementary education and kindergarten through sixth-grade self-contained.
She's currently working on her master's degree in autism and special education through Fort Hays State University and Pittsburg University. At her classroom at the intermediate center, Hawkins works with 13 students.
"I work in a room with severely mentally handicapped students. I have ages 9 to 16, but they have the cognitive function from a 9-month-old to a 3-year-old," she said.
In the classroom, they work on very basic skills include cooking, personal hygiene, learning telephone numbers and addresses. The students work at Staples one hour per week running errands and doing other activities. They also eat out at different restaurants in the community to learn how to order off of menus and for social activities. The students do a variety of recreational activities in the community, such as hockey, bowling and swimming, Hawkins said.
"These students will probably live with their parents or in assisted living. So that's what I do — I prepare them for lifelong journeys that they'll have after they graduate high school," Hawkins said.
Hawkins said her work is at times stressful and emotional, but it's all worth it.
"It's rewarding to see the smile on the students' faces once they complete a task. It's amazing. And the task might be the littlest thing, like writing a name correctly. But for them, and myself, it's so rewarding. Some of them work on that for years," she said.
Hawkins said her job takes patience.
"You may not see gains very quickly. Sometimes it takes numerous tries, or numerous years," she said.
Some of the gains are huge.
"I have one kid who used to use a wheelchair and now he's walking with a walker," she said.
Hawkins said emotions can run high when working in her field.
One of her students died last month.
"That was the hardest thing I've had to deal with," she said.
But Hawkins said she loves her job.
"I just like seeing the kids succeed in life. Knowing that they're going to amount to something, and not just be passed along in society as a nobody," she said. "Knowing that I helped them get to the point they can work a job at a local grocery store, or possibly some kids going to college and accomplishing things they never thought they could — makes it all worth it."
Hawkins isn't alone in her efforts, though.
"I have eight amazing paraprofessionals who love these kids and who agree with me on pushing them to be as independent as possible and to follow their dreams. My students' successes wouldn't be possible without them. They don't get enough support for what they do," she said.
In addition to teaching, Hawkins has coached a fifth- and sixth-grade traveling girls basketball team in Holcomb. Also this past season, she coached the fifth- and sixth-grade volleyball team at Charles O. Stones. She also works at the golf club at Southwind and Little Britches.
"This job and this community have allowed me to grow as a person in so many ways," she said.