Spotlight: Lisa Moody (NE '22)March 21, 2023
Lisa Moody (NE ’22), who has cerebral palsy, carries a unique perspective into her special education classroom: “My experiences have given me a desire to create a more equitable and inclusive learning environment for every student.” She received Nebraska’s Milken Educator Award at Omaha’s Jefferson Elementary on January 20, 2023.
Milken Family Foundation: How have your own experiences shaped your understanding of students’ challenges and influenced your instructional practice?
Lisa Moody (NE ’22): As a teacher with a disability, I believe that I have a unique perspective on the challenges that my students often face on a daily basis. My own experiences of coping with a disability have taught me patience, perseverance and an ability to find alternative methods when faced with obstacles. I have learned to be sensitive and empathetic to the needs of my students and to look beyond their disabilities to see their abilities and strengths.
My unique understanding has taught me the importance of creating a safe, inclusive and accessible learning environment that meets the needs of all learners, including those with disabilities. I try to work with my students individually and explore potential accommodations so they can fully participate in all aspects of the class. My shared understanding has given me a desire to create a more equitable and inclusive learning environment for every student.
MFF: What benefits have you seen from the new inclusive education program you spearheaded?
Lisa: When we faced a shortage of special education teachers in our building, the speech pathologist, my principal and I collaborated on ways to serve students who are typically placed in an alternate curriculum program (ACP) self-contained classroom — within the general education setting, combined with special education interventions. By shifting towards a more inclusive educational environment, we have witnessed tremendous growth in students’ academic, social and linguistic skills.
We have also created a culture where all students are welcome and are equal members of the learning community. This inclusive mindset has transformed the way we view each other and measure student growth and achievement. Students celebrate each other’s accomplishments and support each other when they are struggling. We are working to create an inclusive community where students learn together, ensuring that all students are prepared for success every day.
One of the first steps we took to create an inclusive community for all was pairing each one of our special education students who takes specialized transportation with a sixth grade buddy. Their buddies meet them at the bus, walk them through the breakfast line, help them get their breakfast, and then drop them off in the classrooms every morning. The buddies have built such strong relationships that the sixth grade buddies are often found skipping their own recess time to play with their ACP buddies instead. It’s literally the sweetest thing to see buddies interact with one another, playing games, finding shared interests such as coloring, building, or even blowing bubbles.
We’ve seen a complete shift in understanding throughout our building. Students in our hybrid program are seen as equal members of the learning community who are loved by so many. They are verbally communicating and interacting with their peers more than ever before.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Lisa: I grew up in a family of educators. My father was a school superintendent, and my mother was a special education teacher. Seeing firsthand the passion they had for helping students and their families led to my interest in working in education. Naturally, having a disability led me to wanting to work with students with similar struggles.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Lisa: My mom is my biggest role model. I’ve been fortunate to spend my entire life watching her make a difference in the lives of her students. Now I see her continue that work as a substitute teacher in my building. Her passion and drive to teach struggling learners is something I aspire to achieve, year after year.
MFF: How did your first year of teaching go?
Lisa: Oh my gosh — I remember getting hired right after graduating with my master’s in special education in December. I remember driving home from my first day of work, crying to my mom on the phone. I remember telling her that I had no clue what I was doing and that I was going to fail at my job. She, of course, talked me down and told me I would do just fine — that all I needed to do was be there for my kids. Of course, she was right, because she is always right. I relied on her so much in my first years as a teacher. For that, and so much more, I am eternally grateful.
I was also very blessed to be surrounded by veteran special education teachers from both schools. (I traveled between two schools my first semester of teaching.) These teachers took a young teacher under their wings and taught me so much. I remember I had over 70 students on my caseload between the two schools, with one of the teachers on maternity leave towards the end of the year. The paperwork involved with students in special ed can be daunting. Needless to say, completing end-of-the-year paperwork on 70 students was overwhelming. Those veteran teachers helped me through it. I told myself if I could get through that, then I could get through anything.
After taking a full-time position at one of those two schools, I spent the next several years being mentored by one of the strongest people I have ever known. Annette Beers was a special education teacher at Jefferson who worked alongside me before taking on an administrative role. She was the person I’d go to with questions regarding students, IEPs, accommodations, or life in general. She was a wealth of knowledge, a master at her craft, and I was lucky to watch her do what she loved every day. Sadly, she passed away several years ago after battling cancer. To this day, when struggling to find an answer to something that has come up at school, I find myself saying, “What would Beers do?” The impact she left on her students and the teachers she worked with is never-ending.
MFF: What do you like about working with elementary students?
Lisa: It’s a truly rewarding experience for many reasons. For one, elementary students are typically very eager to learn and explore, which can make for an exciting and dynamic classroom environment. Their curiosity and enthusiasm can be contagious, and seeing their progress and growth can be incredibly fulfilling. Working with elementary students provides a unique opportunity to shape and influence young minds. Teachers and educators have the ability to instill a love of learning, foster important skills and values, and help students develop into confident and capable individuals.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Lisa: Oh, man, was I surprised! I literally spent most of the beginning of the ceremony helping one of my students put together a new puzzle I had brought for him. When they called my name, I was shocked. So many of my colleagues are equally worthy of the Award, so I wasn’t thinking that my name could be called. I was stunned. I remember thinking, “Oh no, I have to get up in front of those cameras. Please do not fall down.” Everything else from that morning is a bit of a blur.
My unique situation and fears aside, I think it’s truly incredible how the Milken Family Foundation shines a light on the amazing things educators are doing every day for their students, families and communities. I have never felt so special in my life. Being recognized as a school for our hard work is indescribable.
I have also loved how this Award has reconnected me with people from my past. The number of people in my life who have reached out with kind words has been so heartwarming. It makes me reflect on the relationships I’ve cultivated over the years and the impact those people have had on my life.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Lisa: They crack me up because they constantly ask if I have received my $25,000 yet. They want to know what I plan to do with the money. They also think it’s pretty cool that I am on TikTok and other social media platforms. I hear “I watched you on YouTube” quite often!
MFF: How do you define “success” for your students?
Lisa: Success means setting realistic and achievable goals based on their individual abilities and strengths. It involves helping them develop the skills and strategies they need to navigate their challenges and succeed in the classroom and beyond.
I also believe that success for students with disabilities goes beyond academic achievement. It includes fostering important life skills such as self-advocacy, independence and socialization. By helping my students develop these skills, I aim to empower them to take an active role in their own lives and become confident and capable individuals.
Ultimately, defining success for my students with disabilities is about creating a supportive and inclusive environment that recognizes their unique strengths and challenges. It’s about fostering a sense of belonging and community that allows them to thrive both academically and personally. By doing so, I hope to help my students achieve their full potential and become successful, happy and fulfilled individuals.
MFF: What do you want your students to remember from their time with you?
Lisa: I hope they remember it as a time of growth, support and encouragement. I hope they remember feeling valued, heard and included. I hope they remember that despite any challenges they faced, they are capable of achieving great things, and I believed in them every step of the way.
I hope my students remember that I always celebrated their successes, no matter how small, and that I was there to support them through their struggles. I hope they remember the fun activities we did together, the laughter we shared, and the friendships they formed with their peers. I hope they remember feeling safe and respected in our classroom, and that they learned not only academic skills, but also important life skills such as independence, self-advocacy and self-confidence.
Most of all, I hope my students remember that they were loved and appreciated for who they are, and that they left my classroom with a sense of pride in their accomplishments and the knowledge that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to.
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