It was a gig Sabrina Werley had no interest in.

A learning support teacher in the Gov. Mifflin School District, a role which sees her work with students with special needs, she had her world turned upside down last March. Like teachers across Pennsylvania, her school year was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the state closing down schools, a move that ended up stretching from mid-March to the end of the school year, she found herself trying to figure out how do her job virtually.

It wasn't easy.

So over the summer, when the district was looking for teachers to head up an effort to provide virtual learning for students whose families chose not to send them back into classrooms, she didn't raise her hand.

"It's not, exactly, what I wanted to do," the 30-year-old Bernville resident said. "So I didn't want to volunteer."

Apparently, her fellow teachers weren't eager to offer their services either. The district administration ended up assigning Werley the role as the math virtual learning support teacher for students in kindergarten and fourth grade.

They made the right decision. Werley has flourished in the role.

"Not only did she step up to the plate for her students, she also stepped up to the plate for the staff," said Chad Curry, Cumru Elementary School principal.

Werley did such a good job in her new position that she was nominated for the annual Annie Sullivan Award, a prize given out each year by the Berks County Intermediate Unit to recognize individuals who work to encourage the understanding and promotion of students with disabilities.

She recently was announced as the 2021 winner.

"I was just, like, in shock," Werley said of her selection, saying just being nominated alongside such distinguished fellow finalists was mind boggling. "I really didn't think I was going to win. I was in complete disbelief and shock."

A lifelong passion

Werely's career path was set early in her life, at least in her own mind.

"When I was younger, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher," she said.

When she was in elementary school, she said, she was classmates with a student who was autistic.

"I was drawn to him and how the teachers dealt with it," she said. "He ended up being one of my good friends. We grew up together."

Werley said she found watching her teacher work with her autistic friend fascinating. She was touched by the compassion she saw, by the nurturing she witnessed.

She tried to replicate those traits during her time at Hamburg High School, where she took part in the school's life skills club for four years. The club allowed regular education students to spend study halls and other free time working with students with multiple disabilities.

"From that point on I knew that was what I wanted to do," she said.

Werley went to Lock Haven University with her eye on a career working with special education students. She later earned a master's degree from Slippery Rock University.

And since 2013 she has been able to live out her professional dream at Gov. Mifflin.

Small wins

Working with special education students can sometimes be frustrating, Werley said.

Progress can be slow and successes can be small. But, she said, she cherishes helping students achieve them.

"I like that sometimes, even though it takes a really long time, sometimes when they finally get it it's a really pivotal moment," she said. "Those small victories make it all worthwhile."

Werley said that as a learning support teacher, working at Cumru Elementary before her online shift, she gets to spend time with a lot of different students. She may work with third graders on reading one period and do fourth grade math the next.

"It keeps everything exciting," she said. "And you get to see the kids grow. You're with the same kids for maybe five years, if you start in kindergarten.

"You develop relationships with the kids and their parents."

The students Werley works with spend the majority of their days in regular education classrooms. She supplements the work they do there, usually focusing on added assistance with reading, writing and math.

"We're working on meeting their goals and helping them with what they're doing in their regular education classroom," she said. "We're balancing. We're looking at their disability and trying to figure out how to best meet their needs."

That job has been made a lot more difficult by COVID-19.

Adjusting on the fly

The end of last school year was, quite simply, tough.

"Last year, when schools closed, we were just kind of trying to figure it out," Werley said. "You tried to meet with the kids when you could."

Going virtual was trying for a lot of teachers and students. It was particularly challenging for the student population Werley works with.

She said a huge chunk of her students have things like ADHD or other conditions that make it hard for them to concentrate. Some have had a lot of support from parents, who sit with them during their virtual lessons, but others haven't.

"I have a few kids who actually love this and are doing a great job," she said. "But others really wish they were back in person. I think the majority wish they could be back in person."

When in person, Werley uses a lot of hands-on activities to help keep students focused.

"If we're counting by fives we might throw a pillow back and forth, just a little thing to keep them engaged," she said. "Just little things like that."

Of course, you can't toss a pillow through a computer screen.

That means Werley has had to get creative and remain flexible. She said she's sent a lot of materials home with students to help bridge to gap, but admits things have been difficult.

"If I would have been in situation as a first-year teacher, I don't know how I would have managed," she said, adding that her Type A personality is at odds with sometimes chaotic nature of figuring out virtual education. "I need a schedule, I need to know what I'm doing. That has flown out the window this year, it's just going with the flow now."

Werley said the shift online has magnified the need for qualities she already believed were crucial to her job, like being caring and understanding.

"I'm more nurturing now than I've ever had to be," she said.

As the school year has stretched on, Werley has had a chance to return a bit to in-person teaching. Just about every day now she gets to work with a couple of kids in one of the district's three elementary buildings.

Curry said Werley has handled all the hurdles and changes of the 2020-21 school year incredibly.

"Sabrina's flexibility alone this year has gone above the typical staff member, as she has worked both with students in an online environment as well as adjusted to returning to the classroom to work with students in person," he said. "Her dedication to Cumru and Gov. Mifflin School District is greatly appreciated."

Werley said she doesn't know what next school year will hold, she doesn't know if the pandemic will subside enough that all students will be back in classrooms. Despite her award-winning success this school year, she said she knows what she'd like to happen.

"If I was given a choice, obviously I want to see the kids," she said. "It's easier for me.

"This whole year for teachers, it's been tough. This has been a year. I'm pretty emotional, but I've cried more this year than my previous six years teaching combined."

Having faced the struggle the pandemic has created for education, Werley said winning the Annie Sullivan Award this year has special meaning for her.

"It just felt, like, kind of gratifying," she said. "This has been such a year. It just felt rewarding, that someone is seeing all of the work I put in."

comments powered by Disqus