By CRISTINA JANNEY
DiRae Boyd looks at her class of middle school students and sees only possibilities.
Boyd works with disabled sixth- through eighth-grade students in the interrelated functional class at Hays Middle School, a job she has enthusiastically held since 1996. Boyd works with students who have severe physical limitations and developmental delays. Some are not verbal, and others have autism.
Boyd has been selected as the Hays Post Teacher of the Month.
“When I see my students and they enroll and come each year, I see their ability and not their disability,” she said. “And then I try to pack their suitcase with as many strategies, so they can be as independent and successful as possible as an adult.”
For each student, that path looks different. Some students are able to hold down full-time jobs after graduation. Some can only work a few hours, and others their support team has to find other ways for them to have an outlet.
Boyd came to teaching later in life. She went to back to school to become a teacher when she was 33.
The average burnout rate for a teacher like Boyd is three to five years. However, Boyd can’t imagine herself doing anything else. Boyd, who lives in Speed, Kan., loves her job so much she drives 60 miles to work every day so she can work with in a special education functional classroom. Her husband questions her why she doesn’t take a job closer to home.
“It’s my love,” she said. “I love to help them cook. I love to show them how to read and how to do technology, how to do the laundry, how to respond when you go to a dance and someone asks you to dance and you don’t want to dance. Those are the skills we work on — those life skills that other kids just gradually get.”
Working with students with autism, who really need a lot of help building social and communication skills, can be her most challenging work, but also the most rewarding.
“When I see the social and communication growth that they make within my program, it’s exciting because that is lifelong for them,” she said.
Boyd said she tries to put herself in her students’ worlds. She had a boy in her class who was wheelchair-bound, blind and nonverbal. He had to be laid on a mat every day during class so an aide could stretch him. When he did this, he cried out. She knew they were not hurting him, but something about that experience frightened him.
Boyd tried to put herself in his shoes. She laid down on the floor and closed her eyes. She said he must have felt very vulnerable, thinking he was laid out in the middle of the floor so someone might step on him. She and the aides moved his mat to one side of the classroom and gathered some pillows to lay around him so he would not feel so exposed.
Boyd has been selected by her peers twice as a master teacher for the middle school.
Ann Schmidt nominated Boyd for the Teacher of the month saying, “DiRae goes above and beyond every day for not only her students, but any student in need. She always goes the extra mile. For example, a student forgets their sack lunch for a field trip, you will find her in her classroom kitchen putting a lunch together. Not only is she there for students, she always is the go-to person for staff too, whether it be covering a class or sewing on a missing button. She is one of the most caring and compassionate people I know.”
Boyd focuses on behavior in her classroom. Students may cognitively learn on the first-grade level or fifth-grade level, but her students know what is expected of them inside and outside of the classroom.
“When you stand in line at the grocery store, do not be impatient,” she said. “Sometimes my paras say that our students act way better than those people in line at Walmart. I always have high expectations of my students across the board, whether it is academics or social skills.
“I think our lunch ladies would tell you when our students go through the line, they are always the most polite. I always tell them when they pick up their lunch trays, they need to say thank you to those lunch ladies. They have provided you a meal, and you need to say thank you.”
Boyd tries to involve her students with projects at school and in the community. Her students set up for football games. It helps them feel a sense of accomplishment, they are exercising and they use math. The class has also helps make repairs to uniforms. If a student can only push the power pedal of the sewing machine or guide fabric, that is what they do.
Early in her career, she went to the drama teacher and asked that a couple of her students be allowed to be in Mark Massagalia’s drama class. He questioned how that would work since the students were non-verbal.
He wrote a play called “Look Me in the Eye.” Peers recorded the students’ lines, and the students performed on stage through mimes and by pushing buttons to activate the recordings of their lines. She said that play was one of the highlights of her career, and it went a long way to change the perception of her students within the school.
Seeing children’s growth keeps Boyd coming back year after year.
“When you see a young man walk across the stage to receive a seventh-grade award or go across the stage to get their eighth-grade recognition, that is heartwarming. That is fulfillment,” she said. “When I see a young man who came to me with 17 percent compliance behavior for a day and three and half years later he has 99 percent compliance in behavior, we are doing something right. We are meeting the needs of that young man.”
Boyd and her husband were foster parents for more than 20 years, taking in 35 boys and two girls.
Whether it is her foster boys at home, kids in her detention after school, students in home room or her special needs students, she encourages her students to own their mistakes and then move on.
“Every day regardless of how today ended, tomorrow is a new day, and I think that has helped my one young man in the improvements in his behaviors,” she said. “He may know today is the toughest day, but when he walks in the door tomorrow at 7:55, let’s go, it is a new day. Every day should be a fresh start and a new day for everyone.”
It takes a special heart to work with special needs students and it takes a team, which everyone at the school is a part of.
“You do it because you want to make a difference in their lives and, by doing that, they have made a huge impact on mine,” she said.
Boyd, 58, said she would eventually like to retire and be a full-time grandma, but she said she would miss working with the kids in her classroom. She said maybe she would retire and become a para, which would allow her to still work with kids without worrying about all the paperwork.
She said it is hard to let her students go.
Boyd usually spends four years with her students, because most of the students repeat the seventh-grade. She has them six to seven class periods per day five days a week. Sending them off to the high school, she said, “can almost emotionally wreck me.”
“Emotionally it is like sending your child off to college,” she said. “It always seems like if I lose that really, really special student, the next year I get one of those really, really special students that just has that special place in your heart.”