Teacher and Student Tell Their Story TogetherApril 13, 2018
Milken Educator Meghan LeFevers and student Aubrey Bridges travel the country together to change educators’ attitudes about students with disabilities.
I was taught the power of helping others early on by my grandfather, a member of the Masonic Lodge. One of his duties was helping local families get to their medical appointments, and I used to ride along with him. This planted a seed in my heart to want to be of service to others.
I met Aubrey Bridges, a student with autism, when she was in my eighth-grade math class at W.C. Friday Middle School in Dallas, North Carolina. She had been in a special needs classroom for the previous five years and was ready to move to regular education. When I noticed that Aubrey wasn’t connecting with me or her classmates, I called her mom and asked her if I could teach the students about autism. I call this my “accidental stroke of genius” moment.
Aubrey’s mom agreed readily, and the next day I talked about autism in class for about 15 minutes. From that day on, Aubrey knew I was in her corner and cared about her. Aubrey has trouble communicating verbally, so I asked her to share one sign a day with her classmates: yes, no, silly. She was finally able to begin to make friends, something I sensed she wanted to do for quite some time.
A new purpose
After having Aubrey in my class and on my basketball team, I had a new purpose in my educational career: to help students who were misunderstood. During Aubrey’s ninth-grade year, I participated in North Carolina’s Principal Fellows Program, which supports educators who want to move into administration. Recipients attend graduate school full-time during the first year, then complete classwork along with a full-time internship during year two. During my first year in the program, I was able to continue working with Aubrey, helping her learn to use her text-to-speech communication device in the community. She continued to excel at school and worked very hard at home.
In April 2016, Aubrey was granted a “dream” through Dream On 3, a nonprofit in Charlotte that creates memorable sports-related experiences for children with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Aubrey’s dream: to take National Football League star Steve Smith to her senior prom. This got a lot of media attention, focused at first on Steve and his willingness to fulfill Aubrey’s dream. But then families and teachers began to reach out, sharing the hope they got from reading her story.
Most people thought Aubrey would not make it in a regular classroom past Christmas break; I saw her flourish and graduate with a regular diploma and a 3.0 GPA. I knew that her story, our story, was too important to keep to ourselves.
Telling our story
Together, Aubrey and I began to apply to present at local conferences; within half a year we were invited to speak at national gatherings. At our first national conference we met Curriculum Associates and began working with them to kick off their training sessions.
Our presentation, "I See You: Instructional and Behavioral Strategies that Promote Inclusive School Environments," helps educators at all levels see students with disabilities as opportunities to grow and flourish, rather than as problems to fix. We have shared our message with teachers, pre-service teachers, high school students, principals, superintendents, parents and students. Aubrey's story remains the same for every audience, but my portion often changes based on who’s listening. With teachers, for example, I share strategies that I used with Aubrey to encourage her to participate and become an active learner. For administrators, I share tips on how to be effective participants in the IEP (Individualized Education Program) process.
In just two years, Aubrey and I have presented at more than 50 conferences. We receive requests weekly and have met many teachers and principals who come to hear us again and again. Aubrey has even gotten stopped for selfie requests as she walks through the conferences!
Seeing Aubrey and the success she has worked so hard to achieve is powerful. Not only is she defying odds, but she is not "cured." Aubrey works daily to overcome the challenges of living with autism spectrum disorder, doing so with grace, humor, and a drive to be her best. I have not found one group in the past two years that has not been moved by her story.
Next month Aubrey will graduate from Winthrop University. I knew she wanted to visit Disney World to celebrate her graduation, but the trip was out of reach for her family. The night I got my Milken Educator Award, I called Aubrey and told her that the trip was on: I am using some of my $25,000 to take Aubrey and her mom to Orlando in June!
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