Lauren Puglia remembers teaching her stuffed animals as a first-grader in her basement using a toy easel. Today, she’s living that childhood fantasy as a multiple disabilities teacher while taking classes for her master’s degree in education at the University of Mary Washington.
A wooden easel with a white dry erase board sits at the front of her classroom at Mountain View High School in Stafford County. Colorful pictures, ABCs and crafts adorn the walls as Puglia teaches four high school students.
“[My goal is] to make them as independent as possible when they leave Mountain View and to give them the social skills that they need to be productive members of society and make them feel like they are part of a community,” said Puglia, whose students have a range of disabilities, including Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, autism, Angelman syndrome and intellectual disabilities.
Upon her arrival from Philadelphia two years ago, Puglia began Buddy Club, which matches general education students with her students. High school students come to the multiple disabilities classroom on a daily basis to work on socializing. They’ve formed friendships and now communicate outside of the classroom as well.
As required in this type of classroom, there is a method to everything Puglia plans.
The daily routine begins with the morning news; they join in alphabet activities, listen and dance to music and have free play before going to gym class and eating lunch. With the support of two paraprofessionals, Puglia makes sure the students take breaks throughout the day to avoid becoming overwhelmed. And she keeps an open line of communication with parents.
These activities aren’t prepared on a whim. They are lessons taught in her night classes at UMW, many of which were led by Nicole Myers, associate professor in the College of Education, an expert in special education.
“Lauren is highly engaged in class. She shares examples, successes and struggles in the class about her classroom, and you can tell when you are lecturing that she is already thinking about how to apply the knowledge to her classroom,” said Myers, who taught Puglia about student’s social skills, how to set up a classroom, data collection and reflection, community-based instruction and parent collaboration.
Puglia is the only multiple disabilities high school teacher in Stafford. She moved from the suburbs of Philadelphia, her hometown, to Virginia when she was offered the position. And the move has paid off. Puglia was voted First Class New Teacher of the Year by Stafford County Public Schools in 2013.
“[Puglia] is engaging, tireless, and supportive of her students. She is able to adjust to things on the fly and doesn’t let a student having a bad day get her down. She actually seems to get motivated to step up to the challenge,” said Myers, who asked Puglia to serve as a mentor teacher for up and coming UMW students. “She has a wonderful ability to see the potential for success in all of her students and does not get discouraged by the sometimes small and slower steps towards success that one makes in special education.”
The 24-year-old’s ambitions are industrious too. She hopes to finish up her master’s degree by 2014 and then take a year off before pursuing a doctorate with an ultimate career goal of teaching college students as a professor.
But in the end she’ll tell you that the highlight of her day is her students.
“They just make you feel better every day” said Puglia “The little accomplishments are huge.”