"You have to hold Special Ed kids to a high standard and expect them to learn. If you don’t, you’re doing them a disservice."
It wasn’t right.
When Tanya Barrios first saw Renee Delfino, she knew it wasn’t right. Renee, who has Down Syndrome and is autistic, was all by herself. She was in a class full of other kids with autism, but Renee was separated from the other kids in the classroom, where a teacher worked with her one-on-one in a corner.
“They did everything for her,” Tanya marveled. “They brought her lunch, they brought her snacks. Snacks … they just appeared before her! And when she was done, well, the snacks disappeared! She did nothing for herself.”
“She would love nothing more than to get out of her work by acting out,” the girl’s teacher assured Tanya.
And so the girl sat there at her desk, alone, in the corner of the classroom with the other students nearby.
Tanya couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Why didn’t the teacher stop her from acting out so that she could join her peers in the first place, Tanya asked. “Because she would attack me,” the teacher said.
Tanya was incredulous. Not with me, she thought.
At the end of the day, Tanya implied she might do things a little differently next year when Renee was in Tanya’s class.
Tanya Barrios, a Life Skills teacher in the Prosper Independent School District north of Dallas, was born in the housing projects of Miami. Her mother and father were poor, and following the birth of several sons, they suffered through a stillborn birth. Tanya’s mother was told not to have any more children, but she lied to Tanya’s father about what the doctor had said, and she immediately got pregnant again. When advised to terminate the pregnancy, she refused. A daughter, Tanya, was born eight months later.
When Tanya was two, her parents moved into a tiny two-bedroom house outside Miami. “My mom bought a house behind my dad’s back. She wasn’t going to allow her kids to grow up in the projects.”
The house had no air conditioning. “Kids today have no idea what it’s like to be poor,” Tanya laughs. “I would sit there on those vinyl seats at the kitchen table in South Florida and would sweat so much while doing my homework that the sweat would fall on my paper and blot out what I was writing!”
Tanya’s childhood dream was always to become a teacher. “My brother played cops and robbers; I played school teacher,” she remembers.
“My brother played cops and robbers; I played school teacher."
In high school, Tanya joined the band. Her best friend was in the band, and she had told Tanya it was going on a trip to Disney World. Tanya didn’t play an instrument, but she had also never been to Disney World, and so she signed up. The band director gave her a French horn to play. “This isn’t the stupid instrument where you have to put your hand in the bell, right?”
She was assured it wasn’t.
Tanya hated the French horn, initially, but she went to private lessons outside of class anyway. The school paid for half of the lessons, and Tanya paid for the other half with the money she made bussing tables at a nearby restaurant.
Tanya didn’t enjoy that first lesson. “All she did was tell me how bad I was!”
But she went back a second time. And then she kept going back.
A few years later, after Tanya had won a music scholarship to the University of Miami, her teacher – Judy Kneuer – confessed to Tanya that after that first lesson, she had vowed she would tell Tanya to quit if she came back a second time: “Music is not for everyone,” Tanya recalls Judy telling her, “and you were truly awful the first time you showed up in my studio. But I didn’t tell you to quit, because I noticed something that second lesson: You had improved. Not a lot, but you had improved. And I thought to myself, ‘Okay, I can work with this.’”
Okay, I can work with this.
After college, Tanya began her career as a music therapist, but her heart called her toward classroom teaching, and toward special education in particular. “My mom was a school bus aide for kids with disabilities, so from seeing her work and talking with her about her kids with different kinds of disabilities, I just always felt comfortable with kids with disabilities,” she says.
Over a career in which she has taught both middle and high school, Tanya has learned how to help students of varying abilities accomplish their goals and achieve academic success. As Tanya says, “Kids with disabilities can learn just like everybody else. We can’t feel sorry for them; it’s not doing them a service to feel sorry for them. You have to hold them to a high standard and expect them to learn. If you don’t, you’re doing them a disservice.”
Tanya leaves Renee with her teacher and goes to see her principal.
She tells her principal about a girl she had just seen in middle school and how the girl was going to be in Tanya’s class the next year.
In Tanya’s classroom at Prosper High School, all of the students work together. They take their core classes together, they eat their meals together, and they learn to do things for themselves and for others. “We’re like a family,” Tanya says, “and everyone has chores they learn to do.”
Tanya was determined that Renee wasn’t doing to be treated any differently.
Tanya’s principal listened carefully as Tanya told him about the new girl. Tanya told her principal about what she had seen and how Tanya wasn’t going to treat the girl in the same way.
After thinking for a little while, the principal assured Tanya that she had his support – to a point. He would not have a problem, he told Tanya, letting the parents at the school know if there was majorly disruptive behavior. “I’m willing to do that,” he told Tanya. “I’m willing to do that once. But it can’t happen a second time.”
Tanya told her principal that would not be an issue.
“We’re like a family, and everyone has chores they learn to do.”
Before the year started, Tanya spent time getting to know Renee by visiting and observing her. She talked to Renee’s mother, Elisa Delfino, about Renee’s experience with school, her strengths, and her challenges. Elisa, who says she was “extremely worried” about how Renee would handle the transition, was reassured by Tanya’s attention to her daughter. “I was so happy that her new teacher would be familiar to her,” she says.
When Renee showed up in Tanya’s classroom the first day, the girl immediately realized this classroom was different. “She had new expectations,” Tanya said, “and she met them.”
As Renee’s mother describes, “Mrs. Barrios has conquered a lot of Renee’s poor behavior by teaching her through love and patience exactly what is expected of her.”
She picked up after herself. She sat with the other students. She learned. Tanya found that working with Renee’s inherent sociability actually helped her behavioral problems. “She’s so social, she thrives on being able to relate to people and interact with them,” Tanya says. “She never forgets a name, and once she meets you, she will remember you forever. It’s the best thing for her to be able to interact with people.”
To be clear, there were some issues. “I think we went to Walmart that first week,” Tanya recalled, “to learn how to buy groceries. She started cursing in the middle of the store. ‘Well,’ I reassured myself, ‘this surely isn’t the first time someone has cursed in a Walmart.’”
Tanya stuck with Renee. And each day, she saw what Judy Kneuer saw all those years ago back in South Florida: improvement.
Today, Renee is one of the most beloved students at the school. And the principal hasn’t had to call home to any of the other parents … much. “I’m most proud that she’s able to have access to the general population. Before, she was completely self-contained, she couldn’t leave her classroom, couldn’t even leave her own corner of that classroom. She couldn’t interact with her classmates at all. But now she goes to the cafeteria, to inclusion classes, even to the Special Olympics. She’s part of the community.”
Renee is one of the principal’s favorite students. And Tanya is one of the most admired teachers at Prosper. Because every student who arrives in Tanya’s classroom is greeted in the same way.
Okay, Tanya thinks to herself, I can work with this.
Photos by Tim Boole
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