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Walden Magazine // Dec 11, 2009

Teacher of the Year Mary Schlieder: Redefining Normal

Name: Mary Schlieder
Award: 2008 Nebraska Teacher of the Year
Teaches: Special education
Teaching Since: 1980
Studying at Walden: Doctor of Education (EdD)

Since first starting out as a teacher nearly 30 years ago, Mary Schlieder of Norris Middle School and Norris High School in Firth, Nebraska, has watched major changes take place in how people approach kids who don’t necessarily fit in, kids who were segregated for decades, decreasing the chance they would ever be able to integrate into society and see themselves as “normal.”

“My title is ‘Special Education teacher,’ but the role has really evolved over the last 10 years,” says Schlieder, who was Nebraska’s 2008 Teacher of the Year. “The boundaries are breaking down. There used to be a big stigma about being Special Ed. Now, my room isn’t viewed as a Special Ed room. When anyone needs help, they come down. We all have strengths, we all have challenges, and it’s a really a good thing to know yours.”

Schlieder has seen, in her own family, what happens when those who need specialized assistance don’t get it. In the 1980s, she worked with a nine-year-old cousin who has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism, but at the time was undiagnosed. “He had no social skills,” she says. “He ended up living a kind of reclusive life. He’s brilliant, but just didn’t learn the social skills that he needed. He never reached his potential.”

Then several years ago, she met Caleb, a seventh-grader who reminded her a lot of her cousin. “I was determined to do something for Caleb that I wasn’t able to do for my cousin. I just hadn’t had the tools or knowledge back then,” she says. “We worked on peer education, because I realized that if you teach social skills in isolation, how to have a conversation, how to not pick your nose, then you go out into an unwelcoming environment, on the bus or in the cafeteria, you’re never going to get the chance to practice.”

Recently, she’s also been embracing some of the teaching techniques suggested by Dr. Ross W. Greene. One of them, negotiation, has proved particularly effective. She explains: “You listen to a child and you invite him to problem solve. He says, ‘I don’t want to work and the teacher is stupid.’ You say, ‘Well, I’m concerned that if you don’t do the math, you’re going to fail, and you’ve already told me that your high school diploma is important to you.’ You identify the problem and both of your concerns, and then you invite them to help you to solve the problem and come up with a solution.”

Part of the reason Schlieder is excited about studying at Walden is the fact that she is endlessly fascinated by methods like these. But she’s found that often other teachers aren’t as open to dealing with “difficult” students, their empathy extends to kids with physical handicaps but not to those who, say, have uncontrollable emotional outbursts. In an effort to change people’s points of view and disseminate information about behavioral challenges, Schlieder found herself giving talks around the school to other teachers who wanted to learn how to deal more effectively with children on the autism spectrum.

“I started to do workshops on it, and I was just handing out sheets and people were emailing me questions and calling,” she recalls. “Eventually the copy lady at school got crankier and crankier every time I had to do a workshop, and so I submitted the book for publishing and Autism Asperger Publishing accepted it.” Her handouts became the book With Open Arms: Creating Supportive School Communities for Kids with Social Challenges.