Teaching a wide spectrum of students

By Nicole Cooke

March 14, 2014

After a short four years in the Sedalia School District 200 and working with a small population of students at Smith-Cotton Junior High School, autism spectrum teacher Chris Evans has earned himself the title of Educator of the Year.

The Sedalia Community Educators Association recognized the top educators and associates at each building in the district during a banquet March 4, and out of that pool was named the Educator and Associate of the Year. A surprised Evans walked up to receive his award surrounded by applause from family and coworkers from throughout the district.

“I think it speaks volumes to the type of person and educator that he is,” said SCJH Principal Jason Curry. “In such a short time of him being in the classroom he’s had a big impact and that hasn’t gone unnoticed. He helps with a small population but people notice. It spreads, and he treats everyone the same and with respect. I think it’s just amazing for him to accomplish this in such a short time. It’s a great accomplishment and acknowledgement for him.”

Evans started his college career as a biology major at Missouri Western State University, but soon decided he wanted to return to the profession he started in high school — carpentry. Once he had a family, he decided to finish his college degree, this time in elementary education at State Fair Community College and Central Methodist University.

“Honestly, it was my children, helping them with homework and trying to stress the importance of education, and not finishing my own education, I didn’t want to be a hypocrite,” Evans said. “It made sense. So I kept working full-time and went to school full-time.

“The way I got into education, I coached everything the kids played in, and I enjoyed working with kids, especially the young kids, and I started reflecting on my time in school, and instead of trying to avoid some of the difficulties I had, I wanted to go back and help.”

Evans started his teaching career as a Tiger during his student teaching at Heber Hunt Elementary, and during a year of subbing in the district in 2010-11. He didn’t originally plan to become a special education teacher, but his experiences in Sedalia led him to his current position.

“Whenever I was subbing I made sure to sub K-12 anything. I was really just looking for experience,” he said. “I can only learn so much from a book is what I thought. Some of those subbing jobs were paraprofessional jobs or working in special education as a teacher. I really enjoyed it.”

Before he finished student teaching, he was offered a paraprofessional position at Smith-Cotton High School. A year later he was offered his current job to help start the autism spectrum program. It had been introduced at the elementary schools and middle school, and finally made its way to the junior high in 2012, and will eventually be brought to the high school.

“I can identify the struggles that they have and I like being part of helping them get through it,” he said. “It really does affect every part of their day.”

Evans has a set of students he meets with every day, starting first thing in the morning for what he calls “priming.” While someone not on the spectrum knows they may have a meeting that afternoon and can prepare for that naturally, students on the spectrum need that time in the morning to get organized for the school day. From there, the students attend their core classes, and then return to Evans’ classroom for Social Skills class. The classes have students with varying ranges of abilities.

Monday through Wednesday Evans teaches lessons, Thursday is library day, which allows the students to interact with others, and Friday is game day with group activities. The end of the week applies and assesses what they learned earlier in the week.

“We eliminate right and wrong. It’s either expected or unexpected,” Evans said. “Every situation, no matter where you’re at, every social situation has expected and unexpected behaviors that others are wanting from that. So what I’m teaching are the social skills that help them get through school but also social skills they would need outside of school by helping them know that any time you’re in a social situation you’re sharing space, thoughts and feelings.”

For example, when the Democrat visited Evans’ classroom on Thursday, he explained to the students that having a reporter join them is unexpected, and may make some students feel anxious, some excited, and some neutral. To help ease those feelings, the students all wore ties in odd ways, such as around their head, hand or neck, so the Democrat would experience something unexpected when they walked in.

In addition to teaching, Evans also acts as a case manager, helping with schedules, homework, accommodations, and is a parent and teacher resource. Evans spends time in other classrooms and the cafeteria to assist students and teachers when needed.

“It’s modeling for the teacher how to work with students, and, most importantly, it’s getting that peer involvement,” Evans said. “When other kids see how you interact with that student, seeing triggers, if you stay calm and don’t take it personally it’s easier for them, who are ultimately the ones who are going to be part of their social networking.”

Those interactions can help core teachers better understand how to work with each autism spectrum student, and Evans noted that working with students with autism is a team effort. Since the spectrum is so broad, each student may have a different trigger, whether it’s something sensory or possibly environmental, such as where they sit in class.

“It’s getting people to recognize individuals. …we’re not going to be lacking the same deficit. We’re going to have a completely different deficit,” Evans said. “…if you know one student with autism, you know one student with autism. You don’t get to know all of them. It’s helping those core teachers learn that student and understand their deficit.”

“Kids know what Mr. Evans expects from them not just in his class, it’s in every class they go to,” Curry said. “I think if a student has an issue with another teacher and they go to Mr. Evans, they know if they hear reaffirming comments from him they’re supposed to behave and perform the same. The impact is not just in his room but in every room these kids go to.”

It’s this commitment to his students that has helped them progress through school and gained Evans the Educator of the Year award.

“In general, he just has the type of demeanor that every parent hopes for when they send their children off to school,” said Chris Pyle, director of special education. “No matter what he’s just caring and understanding of each student and also has high expectations and helps each individual achieve. He has students in his class with ranging abilities and he helps those students achieve.

“He does a great job, collaborates well with all staff, especially those in the special education staff. I’ve heard great feedback, and the kids are making progress. When I go by to visit he is constantly engaged with students, they pick up on his attitude and he sets a good climate for his room.”

Evans’ stance on his big win hasn’t changed since the banquet, as he recognized his SCJH team for all the work they do together for their students. He is, however, using the award as a source of inspiration to do even better.

“It’s humbling. I really feel like my name should be up there with several others,” Evans said. “It kind of worries me, because it seems so fast, but it also really inspires me because if I’m just starting off and I’m making this kind of impact, imagine what I can be in 10 years. I don’t feel like I’ve even come close to plateauing. I feel like I’m just starting to get up to speed to where I want to be. I’m ready to, in my opinion, get good at what I do.”