Jillian Stelma was walking through the halls of her high school when a girl touched her back and changed her life.
A girl she did not know was tracing a number on her back, and, when Jillian turned around, the girl just stood there, smiling broadly at her. A teacher quickly approached and introduced Amy, a high school student with autism. Jillian asked a few questions and accepted the teacher’s invitation to visit Amy’s classroom.
“I didn’t know much about special ed students, but when I went into the classroom, and I saw how those students were functioning and how they were relating to other people, I was just hooked. Those students might not be present in a traditional sense, but they are still processing information and understanding. Autism fascinates me,” she said.
Jillian concocted an independent study course for herself so she could work in the school’s resource room for credit. Eventually, she spent two years as a peer mentor, guiding students through the confusing social geography of high school, accompanying them on field trips, and even to senior prom.
That relationship convinced Jillian that she wanted to become a special education teacher. With a 4.0 GPA in hand, Jillian will walk across the stage at Murray State University in Kentucky in mid-May and become the first person in her family to graduate from a four-year college. She will have dual certification in K-12 learning and behavior disorders and elementary general education. She’s ready to teach special education students at any level with a preference for students on the autism spectrum.
“I know this is what I was meant to do. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable with these kids, but I feel I’ve been called to do this work,” she said.
That pull and the vision of having her own classroom has kept her going through an often rocky 14-year path from high school diploma to college degree. On her first foray into college, she flunked out after two years because “I just wasn’t mature enough for college,” she said.
She returned to her hometown and, for seven years, worked as a paraprofessional at every level and with almost every category of special education student. Prekindergarten students with autism. Middle school students with emotional disabilities. High school students with cognitive delays. Summer school with kids across the spectrum.
Spending nearly a decade in the school district also introduced her to the 21st-century realities of working in public education. In 2012, she learned that her pay would be cut and the cost of her benefits would increase. Time for college again!
This time, a more mature Jillian was ready. In 2013, she moved to Henderson, Ky., to live with relatives and enrolled in community college while working fulltime as a paraprofessional with special education students. Two more years as a parapro followed, always working with special education students, always with her eye on the prize of a college degree and her own classroom.
“I’m a veteran who’ll be starting at the ground level,” she jokes.
Her deep experience in school districts has not dampened her enthusiasm for the profession. But it has tempered it with reality. Teachers haven’t always been encouraging about joining the profession. They’re frustrated with testing, with low pay, with constant complaints about the quality of education, with the stress of the work, she said. “If things keep going the way they are, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to attract people to education or keep them once they get jobs. If you want to attract people who are on the fence about teaching, there’s got to be a shift in attitudes and a shift in funding. Nobody’s going to sign up for a profession where they’re set up to fail,” she said.
As for her, getting her first classroom after such a long journey is hard to comprehend. “It feels surreal to me. This has been my goal for so long. Now it’s really going to happen. I’m just so nervous and so excited,” she said.
As of this writing, she’s also still looking for that first job, hoping that the teacher shortage means there are districts ready to hire someone who has persisted so long to become an educator. If I were hiring, Jill Stelma would be at the top of my list.
JOAN RICHARDSON (@KappanJoan) is editor-in-chief of Kappan magazine.
Originally published in May 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (8), 4. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.