Annamarie Windsor, a first-grade teacher at Edgewood Elementary, has an annual request that principals don't often hear: "Give me the special-needs kids."
In many cases, special-needs pupils require extra time and attention that teachers with large classes often don't have to give. This year, Windsor's 19-pupil class has five children who are working from individualized education plans, each with needs unique to his learning disabilities.
Windsor said she uses those needs as teaching tools.
"When kids come in with special needs or behavior problems, I'm the first to admit it's disruptive," said Windsor, a nominee last year for Harford teacher of the year. "These kids disrupt academics, but the learning continues. I teach the whole child, with books and without."
Principal Lisa Sundquist says Windsor is a good match for the pupils.
"She has a keen sense of where her students are and what they need to keep improving academically," the principal said. "Nothing seems too much for her to do for her students. We are very fortunate to have her."
Pamela Jones, a special education evaluator for Harford County, said Windsor's strength is consistency.
"She looks at every kid the same," Jones said. "A lot of teachers get overwhelmed when they open a student file at the beginning of the year if the child has problems. Not Ann. She adjusts her class to accommodate even the most severe problems."
Jones recalled one student Windsor taught who was diagnosed with Down syndrome.
"Children with Down syndrome are cognitively years below their same-age peers," Jones said. "She manufactured her room to accommodate his needs and provided activities for him that allowed for him to spend a majority of his time in her classroom, without a lot of special education intervention. This is highly uncommon."
Windsor said her experiences as a young pupil gave her awareness of how difficult it can be for some children.
"I had problems learning in school, and my teachers weren't always patient and they didn't always understand," Windsor said. "I always knew I wanted to teach, and I knew I wanted to teach differently than I'd been taught."
Windsor is a Baltimore native who graduated from what was then Towson State University with a degree in early-childhood education. She spent her first 10 years teaching for the Archdiocese of Baltimore before coming to Edgewood Elementary, where she has taught for 18 years.
She taught in a regular-education classroom until 12 years ago, when she was asked to teach the inclusion class, which is a class taught in a regular-education environment that includes children with special needs.
"I was scared because I didn't know what it would be like," Windsor said. "But that first year, I fell in love with the whole idea of inclusion. Not only did my special education kids learn from those without special needs, but my regular-education students learned from the kids with special needs."
Although it sometimes seems Windsor has mastered teaching special-needs kids, it isn't always easy.
"I have to create a curriculum modified to accommodate my beginning-, middle- and high-performing students," Windsor said. "I really have to think about ways to make each child's learning experience successful. So I've learned to prepare three versions of many of my lesson plans. It's a lot of work, but I want them to be able to do what the other kids are doing, and do it successfully."
Another classroom accommodation Windsor makes is working in small groups.
"The groups are split with a student facilitator from the class, who keeps the learning moving, and a recorder, who writes down notes on who misbehaves or doesn't work with the group," Windsor said. "These roles may be filled with kids who perform at the high or the low end."
Windsor said that what distinguishes her class is that she approaches running her classroom like some people run a family.
"We learn to trust each other and care about each other," she said. "The children learn that each child has his or her own special needs and I have to do different things to help them have success."
At the end of her first year teaching first grade, a parent summed up Windsor's teaching with a cross-stitched poem that sits on her desk: "Teacher of the Year Award: For teaching me to be polite, the alphabet, and to read and write. For looking beyond what others see and believing in what I could be."