The classroom has always been Natalie Mohn’s happy place. That’s not to say school came easily to her — in fact, Natalie said she often struggled with schoolwork.
It was the connection to her classmates that Natalie relished. Growing up, Natalie attended the local elementary school in her small town. She knew all of her classmates really well, including students with special needs. In the fifth grade, Natalie bonded with one boy who always asked her to walk him to his life skills classroom. Pretty soon, she started spending her recesses there, learning about what each student was working on.
“I had a connection with these kids,” she said. Just like that, a dream was born: Natalie knew that she wanted to become a special education teacher one day.
Though she knew she wanted to be a teacher, Natalie often had trouble getting her own assignments done. Right before she started the seventh grade, Natalie and her family found out why: she was diagnosed with Asperger’s and autism.
Natalie felt as though her diagnosis put a label on her — a label she wanted to hide. “It’s not something I ever talked about with friends throughout middle school or high school. I never really told anyone.”
However, hiding her diagnosis took a toll on Natalie, so when her seventh grade science teacher approached her mom to ask if she’d ever been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, it came as a huge relief. Now that the school knew about her diagnosis, Natalie could get the personalized education she needed, and her family no longer had to worry about whether or not she would be accepted.
After high school, Natalie faced another challenge: college. She knew it wasn’t going to be an easy road, but she enrolled at a local community college to start her associate’s degree. Even with the college’s disability support services, it took Natalie three years to earn her degree.
Her struggles with college coursework made Natalie doubt her dream of becoming a special education teacher, even though everyone always told her she would be great at it. After taking a year off, Natalie decided to give her dream of working in schools one more chance. She found a job working at her old elementary school with a kindergarten student who needed one-on-one attention. Working so closely with that student reinforced what Natalie knew at age 10: she needed to become a special education teacher.
Determined to earn her bachelor’s degree, Natalie went back to the drawing board to see if she could find a university that would work for her. When she discovered Western Governors University, Natalie knew she had found the right fit.
The flexibility immediately appealed to her — Natalie had trouble juggling multiple classes at once during her associate’s degree program, so she was thrilled that WGU would allow her to take classes one at a time. That’s how she structured her studies in the first year of her bachelor’s degree program at WGU. “I had to find that right program where I could go at a pace that I was comfortable with, where there were deadlines but flexible deadlines,” Natalie said. “Focusing on one class at a time was what made all the difference.”
Then, Natalie’s mentor challenged her to take on all of her remaining content classes — 47 credits — in one semester so she could start student teaching in the Spring, rather than waiting for the new school year to begin the following Fall. It was a huge challenge, but with encouragement from her mentor, Natalie finished her degree earlier than she ever thought she could and jumped right into student teaching.
Today, Natalie teaches special education for children with mild to moderate disabilities in a very low-income, highly diverse school district. “These are really the kids that need the most from their teacher,” Natalie said.
Natalie’s classroom includes students from kindergarten through fifth grade, so her lesson plans include a little bit of every subject — reading, writing, math, and social skills. The children in her classroom are often dealing with heavy issues at home, ranging from homelessness to parents’ military deployments to personal trauma. Natalie said the first and most important job is just building personal relationships with each student, “before you can even focus on closing the achievement gap.”
Looking back, Natalie said every failed class or grueling assignment she had to endure was completely worth it. The most rewarding part of her job? “When I know I’m helping a student have a voice in their classroom that maybe they haven’t had before.”
Her Asperger’s and autism diagnosis has even turned out to be one of her strengths as a special education teacher. “Because I viewed the world differently than a typical person would, I was able to connect with the students I was working with,” Natalie said. “I had more empathy and compassion for what they were dealing with than someone else might.”
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