Special education teacher brings attention to what her students can do.
Kristina Shea has worked the last four years as an education specialist at Rio Linda High School and is proud of the progress her students make. “When my freshmen get to me, they often don’t know the whole alphabet. We set them to read and teach them to do math, or even just how to recognize colors. We have all different ages of learners. They’re constantly growing.”
Her students are all high school age and most have moderate to severe intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome or autism.
Winning for her students
The 2018–2019 school year was a big one for Shea. Rio Linda High School honored Shea by selecting her as its Teacher of the Year. The Twin Rivers Unified School District also recognized her at a banquet in celebration of the district’s Teacher of the Year winners.
“Being Teacher of the Year brings a positive light to special education and to our kids,” Shea said. “My classroom is located next to the office and the student leadership class and it brings a lot of attention to my students. It’s also nice to see my kids getting involved in activities on campus. I tell them to go out to lunch and make some friends. I make sure they have independence from their second week of high school.”
Why did you become a teacher?
Shea’s grandfather taught fifth grade for 30 years. “He was everything to me.”
There’s also a reason she chose special education. When she was in kindergarten, her class moved next to the special education classrooms during a construction project. “We were doing activities and plays and working with them daily. Even at 5 years old, I was upset because I didn’t understand why they were so far away from us on campus. They had a different playground and different classes.”
Shea didn’t like the segregation she saw, and said she never saw special education students again throughout her school years. “It made me think about how those students were treated differently.”
She also was astounded when she learned that a neighbor kid in her apartment complex had to go to a different school.
“I thought this is who I want to work with,” Shea said of special education students. “I want to work with these kids and for people to know they can do anything everyone else can do.”
Challenges of teaching special education
“We are bringing attention to what the kids are capable of, not what they’re incapable of. When we get to take pride in their accomplishments—that’s the reason why I’m here. These kids motivate and reward each other every day, and they don’t give up,” Shea said.
Some days and years, however, are more challenging than others.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” Shea said. “Around April, when you find out how many kids you have graduating; it gets a little nerve wracking. I’m losing three and I’m getting three. Are they going to be easy or hard to work with? I’ve been bitten, had my hair ripped out of my head, I’ve been kicked and had a chair thrown at me, as most people who interact with individuals who have minimal communication skills or severe disabilities probably would understand.”
The progress is worth it. “Watching these kids who can’t read past the letter ‘L’ and then they end up reading a whole sentence in a year—it’s amazing.”
Did you have a favorite teacher?
For Shea, her third grade teacher was her favorite. “She inspired us. She was loving and creative and nurturing. She was a safe space. She was really sweet and thoughtful, and she was a great teacher,” Shea said.
Where are you from?
Shea grew up in San Diego and her family is still there. She moved to the Sacramento region for graduate school to earn her special education credential. Shea, her fiancé and their three dogs are here to stay. “I really love the weather—just the feel of it and having seasons.”
What’s one fun thing about you?
“I love dogs, and I love going outside and hiking and exploring. I love trying new places to eat and drink in Sacramento since this is a new city to me,” Shea said.
What would you like to do after retirement?
Retirement is still decades away, but Shea says she would like to travel when she’s finished teaching. “I just want to do what I want. If I want to keep working, I’ll do that. If I want to sub, I’ll do that. If I want to relax and swim and hang out, that’s what I will do.”
“Education to me is the most important thing we can give to anybody. It really breaks my heart when I see kids or families or teachers who don’t have that same motivation,” Shea said. “Special education is getting more attention in the education world, but there’s still progress to be made.”
Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email Communications@CalSTRS.com, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.