Children in special education classes often feel that they’re on the outside looking in, but students in Ann Marie Taylor’s classes are blazing a new trail and have other students and teachers taking notice. Taylor, who teaches at Pine Tree Hill Elementary in Camden, South Carolina, has succeeded in making her classroom such a fun place that somewhat envious students and teachers are often peeking their heads in to get a glimpse of her high-energy teaching style. Lessons are taught to music blasted from surround speakers, cheering fills the air, and units are punctuated with mock “game shows” complete with prizes and costumes.
“When you’re able to share every day with a group of kids who are so real, it’s a true blessing,” she says. “I want to work to make sure that people come to see that children with special needs are different, but still beautiful. They have as much to offer as anyone else.”
As devoted as Taylor is, it is hard to imagine that working with children was not the path she originally planned to take. In college, she majored in criminal justice, but her professors saw the nurturer in her and suggested she try interning with an organization that worked with juvenile offenders. There, she was paired with Tiffany, a 13-year-old felon who would leave an indelible impression on Taylor. “She had all these awesome gifts” she was an artist and had amazing strengths. But the papers just talked about what she couldn’t do,” she recalls. “She was mentally disabled, but I didn’t see that at all. I saw someone who was a leader and very creative, but was labeled as a ‘problem child’ because of the effect her environment had had on her. Working with her, I realized that I wanted to work to help children before they got into trouble.”
In an effort to broaden the public’s understanding about educating students with special needs, Taylor is earning her Doctor of Education with a specialization in Administrator Leadership for Teaching and Learning. “Last year, I wrote a grant through our Office of Exceptional Children at the state level in order to help create a mentoring program for all first-year special education teachers. I think it was the Teacher of the Year program that really gave me a taste for leadership. It made me want to have an effect on the experience of other teachers,” she says. Taylor’s efforts also have involved reaching out to non-teachers: In addition to encouraging conversations about special needs students in her role as director of children’s ministry at her church, Taylor was responsible for getting the county to restart a Special Olympics program that ended nearly two decades ago.
“Teaching is a great act of service,” says Taylor. “It requires you to constantly give and to be humbled every day. It’s not just what you do, it’s who you are. ‘Teacher’ is the word that describes me before anything else—before wife, before mother. I live it out in everything I do.”