Meet my colleague and friend, Kim Tanaka.
Kim began her career as an elementary teacher, and then moved on to become a vice principal and principal in the York Region District School Board (YRDSB). In her role as a principal, she moved into the Special Education role of Student Services Coordinator and then finally as the principal of Special Education. She has proudly worked in the YRDSB for 33 years and today she is a teacher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).
I was very fortunate to have met her in her retiring year in YRDSB. Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to visit Kim and her crew in the Master of Teaching Program at OISE to present my #PlayBeyondTheLabel workshop, and my experiences as the #MomBehindTheLabel.
As I arrived in the empty room of the university building, I had a quick flashback of my days sitting in an uncomfortable chair at a desk while trying to stay awake through long lectures. Without a doubt, my style of teaching is the opposite of a sit-and-get, so the first thing I did was move all the tables and chairs away to make room for movement and play. As I unzipped my hockey bag filled with fluorescent scarves, rubber animals, old gym towels, and balls that glow, squeak, and ring, students slowly began to trickle in. Some found a chair on the side to finish their lunch, while some looked around unsure of what to expect in the next few hours of class with me.
As I continued to organize my equipment, the room immediately lit up when Kim arrived. In her backpack and large bottle of Perrier in hand, I was welcomed with a warm smile and open arms. When you are in a room with Kim you can feel her energy, passion and love for teaching. After many years in the field of education, Kim continues to share her knowledge and expertise in teaching and special education. For this week’s blog post I’d like to share my interview with her.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: I am always interested in learning how educators get into the field of special education. How did you get into this area of teaching?
KIM: It has been an area of passion for me since my childhood years. Having a younger brother with Down Syndrome really solidified my passion for ensuring that all children should all experience all that our community has to offer. In the 70’s and 80’s, it was not common place to see youngsters with Down Syndrome in the community - swimming, bowling or going to the park. I wanted to ensure that my brother got to experience all the same experiences as other children his age.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: Tell us about your current role at OISE.
KIM: I have been at OISE for 3 years now as a Sectional Lecturer. I teach the Special Education and Mental Health course to the second year students in the Master of Teaching Program (MTs). As the pre-service programme is now a 2 year programme, supporting the regular classroom teacher with a 36-hour special education and mental health course has truly been very well received by the MTs to enhance their understanding of how to build an inclusive and supportive classroom.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: After retiring from YRDSB as the principal of student services, why did you decide to become a professor at OISE? Why were you interested in returning back to teaching?
KIM: I have always had a passion for the inclusive classroom and supporting classroom teachers - so OISE was a natural extension. I LOVE working with the optimistic and open minded youth! They keep me inspired and hopeful about the future of education. Their growth mindset and willingness to consider the many accommodations that are essential for some students but good fo all is so refreshing! It actually feels like I have returned to teaching so that I can share some of my experiences with the next generation of teachers.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: What was it like returning back to the classroom? Was it a huge learning curve?
KIM: The classroom is a natural extension of me. The students give as much to me as I give to them. They are asking very tough questions and make us all dig deeper into the many areas of inclusive education and the impact it has on our learners. I love coming to work each day to hear their stories and support our learning together.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: I am always excited to be invited to come present my #PlayBeyondTheLabel workshop and to also share my parent voice of a child with special needs. Why do you think it is important for your new teachers/students to have this workshop?
KIM: Our MTs need to hear the voice of a parent so they can deepen their understanding of their role in supporting the family and child. Many of our educators need a reminder that the parent was this child’s first teacher and we need to hear what strategies work and also to build on the student’s strengths in order to address their needs. I think it is important that we continue to ensure that the door is always open for our families. Empathy for others is such an integral part of supporting our students and their families.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: What is rewarding about teaching new educators entering the teaching profession?
KIM: It is so refreshing to see the excitement in their eyes when we are working through some critical elements of inclusive education. To be accepted into the two year programme demands an MT who is passionate, bright, committed and caring. So to work with a full classroom on MTs who share this passion is an absolute honour.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: You have been in the field of special education for many years, and a strong advocate for students with special needs. If you were to give one piece of advice to teachers before entering the world of teaching, what would it be?
KIM: I would encourage all teachers to ensure that they focus on building a safe, caring and inclusive classroom where all students voices shine. Once we focus on our student learners and our relationship with them, we are able to use their strengths to help them celebrate their learning. With the student at the centre of all our decisions, we will always make decisions that are in the best interest of the child.
Dearest Kim and the MT crew (our future educators),
Thank you for inviting me to come share my knowledge in quality physical education programming for students with special needs. I am always eager to share my experiences in inclusive education as I also see it as an opportunity to learn from you too!
You are very lucky to have Kim as your partner in education in your Masters of Teaching program. Not only does she bring a wealth of knowledge to support your learning in special education, she brings a skill set that cannot be measured in the teaching profession.
Kim brings empathy into everything she does. When she asks me how my family is, I just know that she really cares. As I watch her connect with each and every one of you I can see, hear, and feel her compassion as she makes every effort to make you feel valued and validated.
As I am continuing to navigate the world for a child with special needs, I hope that my stories as a wife, parent, and advocate gave you a perspective of how labels can enable and disable us. The benefits of empathy in education not only builds positive classroom culture, it also strengthens community and prepares students to be leaders in their own communities.
Thank you for Kim and the MT crew for your contributions to this post. Good luck with your placements next week, I hope our paths will cross again!