Grad Student, Haley Lee, opens up about teaching experience

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Laura Enderson

Haley Lee pulls out a binder full of teaching materials with countless pictures and notes slipped into the outside pockets of the binder. Her energetic personality shines through as she sits, propped up on her bed smiling at the memories of each child she taught as a student teacher through the education program at Radford University.

Now a special education graduate student, Lee, 22, has nothing but passion for her future career as an educator and the children she currently student teaches.

“I keep everything that they do, all the pictures and notes,” she says as she pulls out each colorful scrap of paper individually, grinning at the scrawled words and pictures on each piece, “They just write you the most random stuff, but it means so much to them.”

Lee loves working with children. Her students are the reason she puts so much time and effort into everything she does.

“The kids are all full of personality,” Lee laughs. “That is the only way to describe them.”

Each student is a different challenge, a different learning experience. Not that Lee minds too much.

“I had a student hide under his desk and take off his socks one time,” Lee said grinning. “And he just refused to come out.”

Lee, from Goode, Va, has been working with children since she was 12 years old. Lee and her mother taught horseback riding lessons when Lee was in middle school.

“We worked with a lot of different kids with different needs, different personalities,” Lee said about the daily riding lessons. “And it really inspired me to get into education, because I enjoyed working with them so much.”

Lee landed an internship in high school where she spent three hours a day working at a local elementary school, Otter River. She also had a chance of a lifetime last spring to travel to Barrow, Alaska, and Skyped elementary classes all over the east coast, including the third grade students she was student teaching.

“Haley’s just very creative,” Associate Professor in Special Education Programs Dr. Kenna Colley said. “And she’s not afraid of anything, because most people won’t pick up and go to Alaska. And she loved every minute of it, she’s a real go getter.”

Student teaching an average of 25 hours a week now, Lee still deals with the same challenges. Each child is different, and that’s half the battle of an educator.

“Haley gets all different kinds of kids,” Colley said. “Whether they have behavioral challenges, or whether they are gifted, or they might have autism, she just really has an interest in all kids, and she can connect with them so quickly.”

Lee makes lesson plans for the second and fourth grade classes she’s currently student teaching, often coming up with different ways to adapt a lesson for the students who learn on different levels. She plans writing and word study lessons for her forth graders, and acts as a supporting teacher and runs a book club for her second graders. And it can be a tough crowd.

“The students will tell you ‘I don’t like this lesson’ or ‘I don’t want to do this, this is not fun,’ ” Lee said. “And that’s just pretty much your red light that you need to change your instruction real quick.”

Her students are brutally honest, she says, and they say just about anything that pops into their head.

“I had a student tell me I was talented,” Lee laughs, “As an attempt to get out of an assignment.”

Lee gets quite a few complements, either in handwritten notes or when teaching, but her favorite moment? When her students actually pick up the materials she teaches.

“We were learning about a word pattern, ow, and one of my students goes ‘that’s in Halloween,’ ” Lee said. “And it’s just the stuff like that, where they make those connections where you’re just like, perfect!”

It’s those good days, she says, that remind her why she wanted to teach in the first place—that she can actually make a difference.

“I had a student who didn’t build personal relationships with teachers normally. Toward the end of my student teaching last year … he brought me two cards telling me how upset he was that I was leaving … and inside of it was his famous brownie recipe, handwritten, and it was two pages,” Lee said. “It kind of got to me, because I went the whole semester trying to form a relationship with this student and trying to help him be successful.”

As optimistic as Lee is, she does admit there are some unpleasant days.

“Bad days are just bad,” Lee said. “There’s nothing you can do. You just roll with the punches, you get through what you get through, and then you finish it tomorrow.”

Radford was an easy choice for Lee. Her brother recommended it for undergrad and because of the five-year special education program, it was an easy transition into graduate school.

“When Haley told me that she decided to continue at Radford for another year to get her masters in special education I was not surprised,” Danielle Jepson, RU graduate and a close friend of Lee. “She has a passion for working with children and is always excited to go in and work with students, and is always striving to make learning fun and exciting.”

Radford’s five-year program is unique to other special education programs, because if students attend Radford for both undergrad and grad school, it will only take five years to earn a bachelors in education and a masters in special education, verses the typical four years of undergrad and two years of graduate school at another school.

Colley encouraged Lee to apply, when Lee said she wanted to learn more and be more prepared before starting her career as an educator.

“Two weeks before graduation, I was sitting down with Dr. Colley to go over a lesson I had written, and we were talking about one of my special students who had some behavior needs and … how I wish I had more of a frame of reference with what to do,” Lee said about deciding to attend grad school. “So she offered to help me get into the five-year program.”

Lee said the five-year program was a good choice, because now she is much more marketable in her career field, as well as more prepared for the classroom.
Colley agrees. She said that special education has a 100 percent hiring rate, because over the past twenty years, special education has been a national critical shortage area in the educator field. Colley said Lee has a bright future ahead of her.

“Haley is a real natural in the classroom and she connects really well with all kids,” Colley said. “It’s a hard job, but it’s a wonderful job. And Haley’s going to do well wherever she goes.”
Lee is now on her third placement in local elementary schools to student teach and has already learned so much. She has no doubt that she’ll be prepared for her own classroom when she receives her masters in the spring, and is only slightly worried about the future.

“You learn something new from every school your in, all the teachers you work with, all the kids you work with,” Lee said. “And the more time you get to do it in a structured atmosphere with someone to help you, the better.”

Lee is also a member of Radford’s Student Counsel for Exceptional Children, who help raise awareness about students with special needs. Lee enjoys being busy, and she balances the club, student teaching and her lecture classes, while looking forward to her future as an educator.

“Hey look,” she chuckles, pulling out a full brown bag as she packs her book bag for her next class. “I didn’t eat my lunch. Oh, the life of a teacher.”