WAYNESBORO — Taylor Flavin is not just a teacher at Wenonah Elementary School. She is the special education teacher.
When she accepted the position in summer 2016, she said she did not realize at first that she would be the only special education teacher. In college, she was assured that she would have a mentor during her first position as a teacher after college.
However, Flavin, 24, seems to be doing just fine.
“I am so honored,” Flavin said of being nominated by her fellow teachers at Wenonah as a Waynesboro Teacher of the Year for the 2017-2018 academic year. She said she works with the best group of teachers at Wenonah and each one of them is worthy of a nomination.
Flavin, who is in her second year as a teacher, said she was not expecting to be nominated for Teacher of the Year.
She said the nomination is a reminder to her “why I love doing what I do,” and why she sees a future for herself in teaching.
Flavin lives in Staunton. She is a Robert E. Lee High School graduate. She earned her bachelor’s of science in Interdisciplinary Studies with concentrations of English and Special Education from Radford, as well as her master’s of science in Special Education K-12. She is certified in both general and adapted curricula for special education. She is a member of Virginia’s Council for Exceptional Children, secretary of Virginia Tash, and was recently selected to serve on the Youth Commissioner’s Board for the Shenandoah Valley Office on Youth.
Her passion for special education comes from her background: she grew up with a best friend who was on the Autism spectrum. And, during her junior and senior years at Lee High, she mentored special education students.
“I ended up developing relationships with those kids outside of school,” Flavin said. She said mentoring made her realize how far the public school system has to go in providing for special education students. Before mentoring, she had no idea who the special education students were.
The special education teacher at Lee also served as an inspiration, and Flavin co-teaches an introduction to special education course at James Madison University with her.
One student at Lee High, Ian Ham, who has Down Syndrome, became a good friend and showed Flavin first hand that special education students benefit from being included in the classroom and in extracurricular activities.
“He was probably one of the biggest inspirations for going into special ed,” Flavin said. Ham accompanied Flavin to Homecoming, they went bowling and he attended basketball and football games with her.
Ham was part of a yearbook class at Lee, Flavin said, which he looked forward to each day. As a senior, Ham managed the Lee High Varsity baseball team.
“I think those opportunities were so important for him, and now he has actually maintained a job since he graduated high school,” Flavin said. “So, I think if it wasn’t for that, I don’t think he’d have had the skills to interact with other people.”
From her first day at Wenonah, Flavin began working on implementing a model of inclusion. Flavin has 10 special education students in kindergarten through 5 th grade who share classes with the other students at Wenonah every day. Flavin goes to each student’s class at the appropriate time to help them with their reading, math or other skills. And she also works with students who do not have disabilities.
“And I don’t really think the kids even know who I’m in there to see specifically,” Flavin said. She said she is not just known as the special education teacher at Wenonah, and her presence in the classroom does not have a negative stigma as a special education teacher’s presence might normally have for students who do not have disabilities.
In October, Flavin organized Wenonah’s first Inclusion Day, a day to bring awareness in the community about individuals with special needs and how they can be included in a community.
Flavin said that one of the best parts of her job is when her fellow teachers come to her with ideas that will benefit all of the students at Wenonah, not just special education.
“I don’t want people to think of me as just being the teacher for my [special education] kids. I want everybody to know that we’re all here for all kids,” Flavin said.
The inclusion model must be working at Wenonah, because, according to Flavin and Wenonah Principal Tonya Cook Carter, for the first time at Wenonah special education students have passed the SOLs.
In Carter’s letter to the Teacher of the Year selection committee, she said that Flavin has “revolutionized the way students with special needs are taught at Wenonah.”
“It’s just the way that we do things here now,” Carter said.
She said that she, teachers and staff at Wenonah have learned a lot from Flavin.
“We’re very proud of her,” Carter said.
Flavin said some might be surprised to know that the true picture of a special education teacher’s job is not teaching students to tie their shoes, eat independently or tell time.
“While I think those things are important, I also think it’s valuable for them to be learning the same skills as their classmates. They may not be learning them at the same rate or they may not be learning exactly the same skill but, even if they’re getting exposure to those skills, I think it is so important,” Flavin said.