René Delgado, a special education teacher at Leo Palmiter Junior-Senior High School, says there's no mystery to successful teaching: Have a sense of humor, don't take yourself too seriously, and relax.
This month Delgado was chosen from more than 100 Sacramento County Office of Education teachers as that system's Teacher of the Year. He competes next for countywide recognition against winning teachers in other districts.
The 108-student Palmiter school educates emotionally disturbed (ED) students in grades seven to 12, who have transferred from school districts in Sacramento County.
What drew you to this work?
I really wanted to be a PE teacher and a coach, but out of college I started working in a group home with this kind of population. I also considered doing social work. But teaching seemed like a better fit for me. But most of my career has been special education. I find it rewarding.
What is your daily routine?
I have 11 students in the seventh and eighth grades, and I teach mainly English and social studies. A para-educator works with me and helps kids with their work.
The instructional material is the same as at traditional campuses. So the biggest thing we do is to try to get students to the point where their behavior and emotions don't get in the way of their education. We might put special focus on getting them to take notes on a lesson. Basically, we accommodate their behaviors.
What type of exchanges do you sometimes experience with ED students?
In this setting, there is a lot of defiance. Students might not have classroom etiquette down. In a traditional school, if a kid gets upset, he may leave to go to the restroom. If our kids get upset, they might throw something.
Last year a kid, one of my most troubled students, swept a bunch of things off my desk and stormed out of the classroom. Then his best buddy said, "I will clean it up for some Jolly Rancher" candy. I told him to go for it.
The student who stormed out of the room has moved to higher grades. But he comes back all the time to visit. He always wants to come back to my class.
Once students are referred to Palmiter, do they stay long-term?
Our goal is ultimately to get them to where they go back to their district. Some kids like it here. Some kids transition back to a traditional campus.
What are the attractions at Palmiter?
Some students find they are successful here. We have a great Regional Occupational Program. We're broken up into academies. My class is the discovery academy. That includes a broad range of occupational topics.
Kids learn how to start working. They can work in the school's hot dog cart, which is open on Wednesdays, or the snack shack.
The discovery program allows them to discover what they're interested in, maybe horticulture or the culinary academy. On Thursday we have a farmers market.
What qualities are needed to teach these students?
You need to have a good sense of humor, be able to relate to students, and not take yourself so seriously. You need to be able to let things go, to be relaxed.
The kids have given me a nickname. Some teachers would get upset. I think it's hilarious. If I let that kind of thing get to me, it would grow exponentially.
There are limits to be set. Some kids have trouble getting social cues. There is that line that you have to have.
One of the most powerful reinforcements is praise, a pat on the back. I might say, thank you for getting your work done.
How were you selected Teacher of the Year?
I went before a panel of previous district winners. I told them I try to relate the material to the students and to set routines. If there's an assignment on a history chapter, kids know the process. They are going to read it, look up the key terms, and then take an open-book quiz. It's about providing consistency and routine.