by Jeff Samoray, Published May 16, 2012
Growing up, Benjamin White never thought he'd be interested in teaching. After all, his mother has been an educator his entire life. Like many young adults, White wanted to explore his options, not just follow in his parents' footsteps.
It took a few years for White to find his calling. As it turned out, a job as a substitute paraprofessional educator in Rochester Community Schools changed his life. Now, the senior Elementary Education and Special Education major doesn't just want to craft engaging lesson plans, but change the educational landscape.
"I really didn't know what I wanted to do after high school," says White, a 26-year-old Rochester resident. "I worked for a couple years setting up operating room suites at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Later, I took a summer camp job in Rochester. Through that, I learned about the paraprofessional job. It's just how the cards fell."
Paraprofessional educators serve as teacher's aides in elementary and secondary schools. They often work with special education students. After helping a young boy with autism, White discovered his passion.
"The teachers struggled with this student," White says. "I think I connected with him on a different level. I saw him make a lot of progress, which gave me a lot of joy. I just enacted the strategies the teaching staff taught me.
"That's when I decided to become a teacher. I want to help special education students succeed. Many schools still separate students with disabilities from the rest of the class. To me, special needs students aren't all that different from other students. When they leave school, they don't live in two separate worlds. Bridging that gap will improve outcomes for all students."
As president of the EMU student chapter of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and a CEC member at the state and national levels, White has raised awareness of inclusion issues. Last fall, he helped bring Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Alexa Posny to speak at EMU. White's excitement about teaching also caught the attention of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who recently surprised White with a phone call during Teacher Appreciation Week. Duncan praised White for his work and spoke with him about teacher recruitment strategies.
"I thought I was just going to speak with members of Duncan's staff about teacher preparation programs," White says. "I was shocked when Duncan got on the phone. We talked about the importance of ethnic diversity in education and making sure education students have the chance to work in the field. The phone call was very inspiring. Now, I feel I have to live up to it - I can't let it be the highlight of my educational career. Through the CEC, I'm going to continue bringing general educators and special education teachers together so we can discuss ways to create an inclusive educational environment."
Associate Professor Phil Smith, head of EMU's Department of Special Education, says he expects White will make a broad impact on the educational field.
"Benjamin won't just be a great classroom teacher - I also see him taking on administrative roles," he says. "His vision of including special education students in regular education is very powerful. And it's not just that vision that makes Benjamin remarkable. It's also his passion and persistence. He's excited about the impact teachers can have on kids' lives. It's a joy to work with exceptional students like him."
Visit EMU's Department of Special Education website for more information about degree programs and scholarships.