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We the People Interview Series: Interview with Cheryl McClellan

As part of the Civic Agency initiative, we are conducting a special “We the People” interview series. In this series, we interview intriguing people with different perspectives on the “We the People” phase of our work in ADP. This is the third of many interviews that will be included in this series.

Seated: Rebecca Hamlin, Molly McInnis, Kayla Krebs, Heidi Austin Standing: Schyler Novak, Cheryl McClellan

Cheryl McClellan has worked in a broad range of educational venues, from serving as an HIV/AIDS counselor and advocate, working with people recovering from traumatic brain injuries, training people in First Aid and CPR, to working with children in her own son’s classroom.  Cheryl is passionate about education and special education in particular.  She is currently a graduate student at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is working toward teaching licensure in special education with a dual emphasis in learning disabilities and emotional and behavior disorders (EBD).

During her time at Augsburg, Cheryl worked with Harry Boyte and Dennis Donovan, our two key partners in the Civic Agency initiative. Through this experience, Cheryl was able to lead a transformation in how special education is taught at Augsburg. What follows is her inspiring story.

Cecilia M. Orphan (CMO): Why did you join Public Achievement?

Cheryl McClellan (CM): For me it wasn’t about joining Public Achievement (PA). It was about joining an initiative that could better serve students often marginalized by our education system.  As I learned more and more about the initiative, I became really excited about PA as a model for transforming how we meet the needs of students with emotional and behavior disorders.  I also saw the potential of PA to shift the ways in which all students engage with each other and their communities.

CMO: What changes have you seen as a result of your participation in PA?

CM: I recently had to ask myself the same question – in preparation for a brief speech at Augsburg – and as I was thinking back over the past academic year, I was surprised by the amount of change I have experienced.

I didn’t know what to expect when I agreed to participate in the project.  All I knew was that I wanted to be a part of the Special Education department’s pilot program that was attempting to re-envision the way we teach students labeled Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). PA seemed to offer a new way to engage these students and integrate them into the fabric of their schools and communities. So often these are the students that are tucked out of sight in basement classrooms or in the furthest corners of schools.  They may go to school, but they are not part of the school culture. PA offered a way to change this, and it did.

I expected the students to develop new skills and uncover individual strengths, and they have done so.  Leaders and visionaries have emerged from this group of students often labeled as “behavior problems.” The students have announced their presence to the school community and redefined what it means to be in an EBD special education program.  The school culture is shifting. Students from general education are working with students from this special education program. Staff have recognized and celebrated the work of our PA students. Our PA students have become more visible as members of their school community.

Our PA group is also transforming culture and expectations outside of school. I am reminded of a recent conversation I had with a public school teacher over lunch. As I described our PA project aimed at installing a solar thermal system to heat the school’s water supply, this teacher stopped me and stated, “Middle school students are working on solar energy?” She continued, “Wait, you mean kids with EBD?”  This exchange sums up the subtle beliefs many have about students labeled EBD. Our pilot project is challenging these assumptions.

Personally, PA has changed the way I see myself as a future teacher.  I entered Augsburg planning to focus on learning disabilities as my specialty area. I could not envision working with students having emotional and behavior disorders. In some ways I bought into the stereotypes that many have about these students. This PA project has challenged my assumptions, and as a result of my experience with this PA project, I have added EBD to my teaching licensure. I now have a new understanding of civic engagement as a teaching tool and philosophy capable of bridging the divide between special education and the greater community.

I also know that PA has changed how I see myself in my non-teaching roles. I know I am a better citizen, better community member, and better parent as result of being part of this project. I refuse to accept any less of myself than what I ask from my students, and I am finding my public voice and civic commitment as a result.

CMO: What changes have you seen in your fellow college students?

CM: We all have benefitted from the hands-on experience of weekly coaching.  Our weekly PA meetings provided opportunities to put educational theory into practice and to meld teaching practices with PA philosophy.  We have watched – and learned from – the magic that can occur when students are excited and engaged their learning.

We have all gained confidence, not only in our skills as future teachers but also as future colleagues.  Unlike many PA projects, this one involved co-coaches. We have had to learn to build and maintain collaborative relationships. In the end, the biggest change I’ve seen is that we have transformed from being scared students to seeing ourselves as professionals.

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