Special Education Teacher Prepares Students For The Real World

Melissa Sohl has been teaching special education classes at Randolph Central School for 19 years. To prepare her students for independence in the real world, she teaches them important life skills. Pictured are, seated from left, Pierce Farmer and William Jones. Pictured back from left are, teacher aid Cathleen Flood; Sohl; Brandon Loomis and Mikala Fuller. P-J photo by Deb Everts

RANDOLPH — As a special education teacher at Randolph Central School (RCS), Melissa Sohl is on a mission to prepare each one of her students to be a functioning adult in the community and to live as independently as they can.

Over her 19 years of teaching at RCS, her biggest challenge has been teaching students with very different learning disabilities. To prepare her students who are in grades 7, 8 and 9 for the real world, Sohl sends the parents an age-specific checklist of abilities that will serve their children as they grow into independent adults. By looking at what the parents check off on the list, she can see what the child has mastered and what she needs to work on over the course of the year. The list is sent to the parents quarterly to see if their child has mastered any new skills at home. She said this really puts into perspective the things the child should be able to do.

“Everything is focused on academics with all kids, but what about the life skills that will carry them through their entire lifetime? We’re trying to get all kids to transition from school to work,” she said.

This year’s class is a small group of four students. Sohl said she can never have more than 15 students at a time in her classroom because it’s a “15 to 1 to 1” classroom, meaning 15 students to one teacher, to one aide.

Cathleen Flood of Randolph is a teacher aide for the special education department. Sohl calls Flood her “right hand man” and said she’d have a hard time running the classroom without her. Although Flood follows Sohl’s lead, she’s a natural at working with special needs kids.

With Flood’s assistance, Sohl reinforces her lessons with repetitiveness, then gives the students examples and models it. After that, they put what they’ve learned into practical use.

Her classroom is set up like an apartment complete with a washer and dryer, an entire kitchen, and a bathroom. She has laid out a hallway with wall displays where the kids learn how to shop at a grocery store. They do lessons on what items they need at the store, how much each item costs, making a list, adding up the items, discounts, applying coupons and adding the sales tax. They also practice looking up prices on the computer and alphabetizing the items.

Because she has to differentiate everything for her students’ cognitive abilities, Sohl said she can’t just say to the group, “Let’s make a list and go to the grocery store to get what we need,” because some of her students need to have their steps written down. Others may need a chart, while some need to actually go to the store. Her overall goal is to get them to go to the grocery store.

Sohl said whenever she teaches academic skills, she ties a life skill into it. Right now, she’s focusing on math. At the beginning of the year, she started the class out with decimals and worked on place value, as well as percents. They talked about money, tax and using coupons, then they moved to fractions and got into cooking and measurements.

Another lesson involved a scenario of going to a restaurant and ordering from a menu. The students determined the cost of their meal and how much money they would need to tip the server. With a table set up in the classroom to resemble one at a restaurant, they took turns posing as servers. After they knew the proper etiquette, menus and prices, the class was taken to an actual restaurant.

Some students learn skills best through games that Sohl has created for the classroom. To make their learning fun, she has to come up with ways to meet all their individual needs. She said a lot of her students learn “kinestheticly,” through physical activity.

“There is no one way that works for every student. I have to find out what works for the individual and that’s usually driven from their IEP [Individualized Education Plan],” she said. “That is where their strengths and weaknesses are listed, as well as their program and who is responsible for each part of the plan.”

According to Sohl, one the most important things for student success is a parent’s acceptance of their child’s disability. She said this makes it easier to work with a parent and to have the best communication to provide more benefits to students.

Her passion for helping children with disabilities came at a young age when she started babysitting for a girl with cerebral palsy. Sohl said she babysat the girl for years and the doctors kept saying she was never going to walk.

“I asked myself, ‘How can a doctor tell you something like that?’ So, I worked with her and sometimes I would have her come to my home when I babysat,” she said. “My family took her in as one of their own; we all worked with her, and she did walk.”

A resident of Frewsburg, Sohl has two daughters who attend Frewsburg Central School, Madeline, a junior, and Kendal, a seventh grader. She earned her bachelors degree at Ashland University, in Ohio, and received her masters through the State University of New York at Fredonia, while she was teaching.

Sohl said she’s very fortunate to work at RCS because she has resources whenever and wherever she needs them. She said it’s a wonderful program and the school’s Committee on Special Education (CSE) is a team; it’s not just her.

Sohl said she loves her job and she loves the kids she works with because they make her smile. After they move on and leave her class, she keeps in touch because it’s hard to let them go.