Career & Finance

Special Education Teacher Liz Lewis


We would bet everyone reading this can think of at least one teacher they had (or have) who shaped their outlook on life. Our teachers help us learn about the world; they teach us math and science and history; and they teach us about ourselves. Today we’re thrilled to share the story of one such teacher.

Meet Elizabeth Lewis, a middle school special education teacher. Liz finds joy in working to shape the lives of others for the better and to help them understand the world a little more fully. As Liz says, “The most rewarding part of my job is to see the growth of the students. I work all year with them on everything and sometimes I don’t see the daily progress. But at the end of the year when I look back on the overall progress they’ve made, it’s very rewarding.”

Liz first remembers wanting to become a teacher in first grade; it was a dream that only grew as she got older. After high school Liz attended college at Northwest Missouri State University and from there spent time student teaching before accepting her first teaching job in early childhood special education. Keep reading to see how Liz made it to where she is today and the advice she has for other women working to achieve their own goals.

Name: Elizabeth Lewis
Location: St. Charles, MO
Current title: Special Education Teacher
Education: St. Charles Community College, general education classes; Northwest Missouri State University—B.S. Elementary Education 1-6 Cross Categorical Special Education K-12; Lindenwood University School Counseling MA: School Counseling

What was your first teaching job and how did you land it?
My first teaching job—aside from subbing in two districts in the area I lived over in KC—was as the early childhood special education teacher for the Platte Valley Cooperative at North Platte Elementary School. I saw the posting online and I called Dr. Bob Couldry, explaining how I had graduated from Northwest (one of the top teaching schools in Missouri) and that I wanted to come in to talk with him. He said I needed to send in my papers online and that once he received them he would call me. The process took a couple of days and each day I called Dr. Couldry, wanting to make sure he knew my name! After a few days he called me for an interview and 12 hours after the interview he offered me the job.

What were your responsibilities as an early childhood special education (ECSE) teacher? What were some of the lessons you learned in this position?
When I worked as an ECSE teacher I was responsible for 17 students, the IEP’s for each student, making transportation arrangements, communicating with parents and staff for IEP meetings, developing lesson plans relating to each student’s goals, and documenting progress on data goals.

One major thing I learned was that I needed a list for everything! I like to be organized; I panic when I don’t have a checklist. With all of the paperwork that came with the position I was having a hard time remembering exactly what needed to be completed for each meeting. I created several checklists and then created a master copy binder to keep everything organized.

I also learned that God gave me this job to build on my nonexistent patience.

You currently work as a middle school special education teacher in the St. Louis area. Tell us about your current job. How does it differ from teaching ECSE?
My current job is great, and overall I’m glad I made the move. It was a very difficult decision to make, but in the end I am much happier here. My current job is extremely challenging but I love my school environment. The middle school I am in is huge—one of the largest schools in the district. I teach in the CDL classroom (Center for Developmental Learners) which is an inclusion classroom. I have one nurse and one support staff who are in the room all day. During the day the students leave for two classes and their aids go with them.

This job differs from my ECSE job greatly because of the needs of my students, the language development of my students, and their ages and sizes. In my last job I worked with three and four year olds and now I am working with middle school students. In my first job I had two separate classes—a morning class and an afternoon class with a break in between. Now I have the students all day with a planning period in the morning.

How did you make the decision to switch from ECSE to middle school?
There were several reasons why I wanted a change. I was unhappy in general with where I was in life, along with being away from my parents, and I was struggling. I knew I needed to make a change because of my unhappiness, which was due to many reasons aside from my job. I did not go to school to work in early childhood and wanted to get into a job that corresponded with my education and training.

I started looking for a new job fairly early in the year to keep my options open and to get an idea of what was out there. I applied for several jobs in the St. Louis area, but really wanted to find a position closer to St. Charles. I also applied for a few jobs in the Kansas City area. I gained a lot from making the move but lost some important things as well.

Tell us about the process you went through to land your current job. What education is necessary to teach special education?
I attended Northwest and then had to be admitted into the teaching program. Admission was based on multiple requirements—ACT score, GPA, score on the C-Base, as well as completion of certain classes. After being admitted into the teaching program the remaining classes I took pertained specifically to the program. Once I passed all of the classes I had to start taking the PRAXIS and get field experience. I also had to complete a semester of student teaching; because I had two majors, I spent part of the semester in a regular education class and part in a Lifeskills Special Education classroom, K-12. I was also required to write a paper covering my experiences and the information I had learned during my time as a student teacher.

To get my current job I completed an application, submitted reference letters, made arrangements for my transcripts to be sent to the central office, and took a test based on my philosophy of teaching. The next step was to go into the office and do a taped interview. After passing the interview, the principals reviewed my information, and I was called in by two separate principals for interviews. After the interview, I was called in to come in and take a look at the classroom and meet and interact with the students. As the principal and I left the classroom and were walking back to the office, he offered me the job.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is to see the growth of the students. I work all year with them on everything and sometimes I don’t see the daily progress. But at the end of the year when I look back on the overall progress they’ve made, it’s very rewarding.

I also enjoy talking to the parents and hearing what they have to say. It’s often so rewarding to hear the parents’ point of view and to hear them say that they see a change for the better in their child.

My favorite part of teaching is when a student comes up to me and tells me that they like/love me, or thinks I’m fun/funny. It makes my day.

What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles you’ve faced in your career and how were you able to overcome them?
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is not always being taken seriously or treated like an adult. Being on the younger side I sometimes get treated as if I’m a child, although I know that can be true with any job.

I have also had to learn to become more patient. This has been hard for me but I feel I’m always improving.

Each day there are different obstacles that I have to learn to work through. I lean on the girls helping out in my classroom, my parents, and my friends for support.

What advice can you give women seeking a career as a teacher?
Network! It is important to share who you know, where you went to school, where you’ve been working, and to talk yourself up. In my interview for my current job I remember walking out thinking, “I hope I didn’t sound stuck up because I’ve never said such nice things out loud about myself.” You have to show that you want to be a teacher, that you are an amazing teacher, that you can do anything they ask of you, and that you will do it with a smile!

Don’t worry about the little things and when you make a mistake, own it. Whenever I realize I’ve made a mistake I say, “Yep, I messed up. Now let me fix it. How can I fix this?” I’m human and it happens. There’s no need to dwell on it.

Working as a teacher is rewarding, but it’s a job you really have to love. Just like any job it is not for everyone. I think there is a certain type of person that makes a great teacher, but each great teacher is different in many ways.

Don’t worry about the little things and when you make a mistake, own it.

When did you first realize you wanted to become a teacher?
Ever since I was in first grade I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I was the little girl that played school constantly. I loved my first grade teacher, Mrs. Vandy, and I remember running home every day to play school and pretend to be her. I used to ask my mom to pretend to be the principal—she would come and watch me pretending to teach and tell me good things and bad things I was doing. She would often tell me that I always asked my pretend students, “Okay?” to get their approval. My mom reminded me that I was in charge and that I didn’t need to ask for their permission on everything.

Tell us about a typical workday!
Like most teachers, there is nothing typical about my day. I feel most special education teachers can understand this. My day consists of health issues being taken care of first—this takes priority over anything and everything. I help my students with personal hygiene care and assist with feedings, and then academics fall into our daily routine. Every morning the students are escorted off the bus into the room and we talk about our day and what happened the night before. I start the class with our morning school announcements and a good morning song. I love to sing, dance, and act a little crazy to get the students happy. We create our calendar for the day, check the weather, talk about important dates coming up for the month, and pick out an outfit for our digital man based off the weather. We often read books and answer comprehension questions. I also like to add arts and crafts into our schedule weekly. We have two breaks during the day and we all eat together. We do science experiments, math lessons, and work on daily goals. At the end of the day we have music therapy, getting the drums out and listening to some music—this is probably everyone’s favorite time of the day because we all love to sing and dance.

Best moment of your career so far?
I would say the most rewarding part would be getting through the entire interview process and getting this position. There were thousands of people that applied and I made it though.

I’m also proud of the fact that I graduated from Northwest, even in spite of a rude and hateful teacher at the school who tried to expel me. I would like her to see where I am today.

What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Learn to control your stress now and start doing yoga! Stop eating chocolate, drink more coffee, and enjoy your sleep. You are not going to be perfect so get over it and move on. Find a hobby. Trust that you have to close one door for the other one to open.

Liz Lewis is The Everygirl…

Morning or night?
I am an afternoon person. I think mornings are the worst thing ever, but I’m trying to learn to enjoy them. I enjoy going out on the weekends but on the weekdays I’m asleep in bed very early.

Best advice you’ve ever received?
Do what makes you happy because you have to live with yourself forever.

Favorite part about living in St. Louis?
My favorite part about living in St. Louis would be my new friends. I became friends with my brother’s friends and we have a lot of fun together.

I wish I knew how to ________.
I wish I knew how to do all kinds of things. I wish I knew how to let things go and not be a perfectionist. I wish I knew how to handle confrontation in a way that doesn’t make me or the other person upset. There are many other things I wish I could do, such as play the piano, sing, and paint.

If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
I wish I could have lunch with both of my grandmas. I never met one and I lost my other grandma when I was very little. I’ve recently been asking my parents about them, and trying to learn more information about them. I would order something very easy to eat that doesn’t make a mess because I know Grandma Lewis would be watching my manners!