Fresh out of Vanderbilt University, where she received her master’s degree in special education, Madison Ross was given a steep task to start her career when she was hired at Urbana High School in January 2022.
Ross was hired to lead a revived Young Adult Program, a class that teaches students with disabilities who continue school from 18 to 22 years of age, after it had been shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2023 Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation Shining Star Award winner surpassed expectations, creating “lessons and opportunities for students to learn how to live and work independently,” and “set up mock job interviews, and helped students learn about budgeting, and communicating with an employer,” according to her nominator for the CUSF Award.
I find my work important because … I teach not only academic subjects but also social, vocational, communication and self-advocacy skills to support and prepare my students to live independent and self-determinant lives.
I became a teacher because … not unlike many people who find themselves in the field of special education, I had a family member with a disability. My genuine love and admiration for my aunt and hearing about her struggles in accessing basic things like education made me interested and ultimately involved in the disability community. My current position as a special educator continues to inform and strengthen my interest in understanding ways to improve and advocate for inclusive education for all students, especially those with disabilities within our school and community.
My favorite or most unique lesson that I teach is … because I teach special education, my lessons look different from year to year based on the students I have in class. That being said, my favorite lessons are those that can bring my students closer to the format of the general education classroom and provide my students with access to the general education curriculum. As I teach high school students, it is important that my students are treated as the young adults they are and have access to the same information as their peers to the maximum extent possible.
I keep students engaged by … connecting our lessons to the real world and things they will encounter daily. Providing multiple examples relating to student interest when possible and ways for students to express what they know (verbally, written, pictures, etc.) and work with the content also helps to keep students engaged.
Something else I’m passionate about is … meaningful inclusion of students with high support needs, developed out of my work as an undergraduate research assistant with an inclusive post-secondary program. Through this work, I grew in understanding the impact of meaningful inclusion, including to help students grow socially and academically. In this position with the inclusive post-secondary program, I had the unique opportunity to witness my peers (with disabilities) be a part of the university experience alongside me, and this changed my misperceptions about disability — instead of seeing limitations of disability, I grew to want to challenge the limitations of systems within our society.
My favorite teacher and subject to study in school was … My favorite teachers were my high school physics teacher and my high school English teacher, both from my hometown (Manhattan High School). These teachers gave me space to think critically about the material and gave us the license to show what we knew in different ways. This is something I try to replicate in my classroom. My students show me their knowledge in many different ways, and part of my job as their teacher is to figure out the ways that they can show me best and support them in that.
If I weren’t a teacher, I would … probably a researcher studying special education and disability policy. I would love to go back to school to study these things. In another life, I think it would be so fun to work for a Tour de France cycling team in some capacity, as I am a huge fan!
— ANTHONY ZILIS