Amy Mangold runs her classroom at the John Archer School in the same manner as any other pre-K and kindergarten classroom in the county.
She sings to the children, teaches them fundamentals such as numbers and colors and reinforces life skills like sharing and good manners.
The difference between Mangold's classroom and a general education classroom for the same age group is that the students she serves have multiple emotional, mental and physical special needs, such as autism, intellectual disabilities, vision impairments and orthopedic impairments.
Mangold, recently named Harford County Public Schools' Teacher of the Year for 2017, also has a much smaller class than standard kindergarten classrooms. She has seven students this year, and five were in class when an Aegis reporter and photographer visited Wednesday morning.
The students were Lynette Sacks, age 3, Kenny Blanchard and Kania Dubose, both 4, Marielos Flores-Escalante, 5, and Gabbi Reeves, 6.
"I have high expectations for all students, depending on their ability level," Mangold said.
The John Archer School, which is in Bel Air across Thomas Run Road from Harford Community College, serves special needs students between the ages of 3 and 21. The school has 147 students, according to its page on the HCPS web site.
Mangold's title is pre-primary teacher, and she works with pre-K and kindergarten-level students.
The 36-year-old Abingdon resident was named the Teacher of the Year during a surprise announcement at the annual Teacher of the Year banquet March 29 at The Bayou Restaurant in Havre de Grace.
She was one of five finalists, and will represent Harford County during the Maryland Teacher of the Year competition this fall.
Mangold led her five students through a group instruction session that lasted about 30 minutes Wednesday. Her two paraeducators, Shanita Richardson and Melody Watters, Towson University senior Nicole Bauer, a student intern, plus a volunteer from the ARC Northern Chesapeake Region, each worked with a student.
Mangold used videos and graphics on her classroom whiteboard to support the lessons, along with toys and communication devices that operate by touch.
"One of the biggest impacts of their disability is how it impacts their ability to communicate," she explained.
The children used devices called single message communicators to interact with their teacher. Mangold greeted each child, and he or she hit the oversized button on the device and a recorded message saying "hello" came out.
Marielos greeted her teacher in English and Spanish, as the words "hello" and "hola" came out of the speaker. Mangold responded with the Spanish phrase, "como esta," or "how are you?"
The students also used the communicators during the counting exercise. Mangold held up either one, two, three, four or five fingers, and the student's device communicated the number of fingers.
She explained later that the device responds in sequential order during counting exercises, meaning it will respond with "one" for the first student, "two" for the second and so on.
The students have a variety of ways to communicate in addition to the single message devices, such as gestures, vocalizations and other electronic devices such as iPads.
"For all students I want to provide modifications and accommodations that will help them reach their highest potential," she said.
The voices that come out of the devices are those of other children, such as the siblings of Mangold's students, or her son's.
Mangold encouraged the children to push the devices to give their answers and did not let them slide without touching the button.
She also stressed the need to "hold and give" an item.
"You can do it, put it in my hand," she told the students.
Mangold reminded Gabbi to hand her the item properly and not throw it when returning the object.
She said the goals outlined in each student's Individual Education Plan, or IEP, are embedded in classroom activities.
"I'm working to promote achievement of their IEP goals and also embed as many communication opportunities as possible," she said.
The students spent about 15 minutes in individual activities, each guided by an adult.
Mangold worked with Kania, who uses a wheelchair and has difficulty moving her hands. Kania used an electronic device that tracks her eye movements and uses them to turn pages in an electronic book.
Kania could focus on a picture of a farm animal and hear the noise it makes, or she could look at an arrow to advance to the next screen.
"You're almost there, you're almost there, you can do it," Mangold told Kania. "Press the arrow with your eye."
Kania kept looking at a picture of a sheep to hear it bleat, and Mangold eventually helped her move to the next screen.
"The great thing is that it is always changing," she said of classroom technology. "It's always promoting more independence and increased accessibility."
Vital support staff
Mangold praised paraeducators during her Teacher of the Year acceptance speech, noting they are a critical part of teaching students with special needs.
"I want everybody to celebrate this, because I think it shines a light on special education," she said at the ceremony.
Mangold said she and classroom staff get together at the end of each day to reflect on what happened and discuss what can be improved.
"I think that really builds the best educational environment for kids, because more heads are better than one," she said.
Bauer, Richardson and Watters went out of their way to praise Mangold's leadership in the classroom.
"I'm just on cloud nine every day working with our teacher who brings so much positivity out of these children," Watters said.
Watters, of Abingdon, is in her first year at John Archer. She has worked at Magnolia Middle School and Edgewood Middle, and she has previous experience with students with special needs, having worked at the Maryland School for the Blind in the 1980s.
She encourages people to visit Mangold's classroom.
"To see the wonderful things that are being done with our students and to see the joy that Amy displays every day is just awesome," Watters said.
Richardson, of Edgewood, has worked with Mangold for four of her eight years at John Archer.
"I've always known she was a wonderful teacher," Richardson said. "She does it effortlessly."
Richardson said Mangold includes support staff in "every single aspect of the day."
Bauer, a Forest Hill resident, is studying early childhood and special education at Towson. She takes classes in the Towson University in Northeastern Maryland facility, or the TUNE building, on HCC's west campus.
Bauer said Mangold has inspired her on her journey to becoming a teacher.
"I truly feel like I am learning from the best," Bauer said. "She's an amazing teacher, and she's also an amazing human being. There's no one I can imagine deserves this award more."