Shelly Schmidt’s passion for teaching special needs students in Plano SD88 has not changed, even after 32 years in the classroom.
“I always fight for the underdog. I just want to help people who need help,” Schmidt said.
A native of Belvidere, Schimdt attended Illinois State University, where she wanted to study biology and go into nursing or therapy. She shadowed a therapist for a class, who took her to a special education classroom.
She recalled watching both the teacher and the therapist and realized what she really wanted to be was a special education teacher, and ran with it.
Looking back, she said she is surprised that being a teacher wasn’t always her plan. She recalled how much she always loved playing teacher as a little girl.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in special education and then a master’s degree as a reading specialist and finally an English Language Learners certification.
Schmidt never actually applied to teach in SD88, but ISU sent out some of their graduating teachers to school districts, and Plano reached out to her.
Initially, she imagined it would be a stepping stone in her career path toward a bigger district, but she fell in love with the people of Plano, her co-workers and the small-town atmosphere. Thirty-two years later, she still teaches fourth grade special education in Plano.
She began her career at P. H. Miller, where she taught fourth through sixth grade for three years, before transferring to Centennial where she taught fourth grade for 15 years. She transferred for the last time when Emily G. Johns opened in 2007.
When she first came to SD88 in 1990 there was no inclusion between the special education classes and the general education classes; each class was taught totally separate.
In her first year, her colleague Elaine Miller offered to combine their classrooms and teach all the fourth graders together, which started the shift toward what is now a very inclusive school district.
Schmidt always loved school and described herself as a voracious reader. Her love of books and the teachers who introduced them to her were a big source of inspiration for her.
She met her husband while he was teaching at Plano High School, where he currently is the athletic director.
Schmidt and her husband have six children, four boys and two girls, with one of their daughters having special needs.
Schmidt said there is just something in her that pulled her toward special education. She never really considered general education and was teaching special education long before she had a daughter with special needs.
After having her own child with special needs, it made her more aware of the challenges that come with that, and gave her a new level of connection with parents as she knows what they’re going through.
She said that now that she knows how it feels to sit at a table with 10 different professionals and how intimidating it can be for parents, she has gained more perspective.
A letter she wrote was recently published, describing the challenges that can arise in what otherwise would be normal situations when you have a child with special needs and the different point of view you gain.
“I feel like I have the most amazing job in the world,” Schmidt said. “I just cannot imagine doing anything else.”
She has truly found her passion. She is excited for a new school year every August, and loves it as much as she did 32 years ago.
Teaching special education does not come without its challenges, however. Schmidt has seen more extreme behaviors in recent years and somewhat of a decrease in support from parents.
“It’s a tough job,” she said, “But if you take the time and make those connections, it can be a very rewarding job.”
She recalled when she was still in her early years of teaching, she found out she was going to have a student in a wheelchair for the first time. She was very nervous and worried that she would do something wrong or hurt her in some way.
When they first met, Schmidt said she realized right away how smart she was. One day, Schmidt was going to a dance after school, and her students wanted to see her dresses. She brought them in to show the class, and the student got so excited she fell out of her wheelchair.
Schmidt was distraught. She called the girls mother very upset and worried, and the girl’s mom began to laugh. The mother said her daughter is so glad that happened, because now you will see that she won’t break.
The girl ended up getting out of special education and was placed in general education where she graduated in the top 10% of her class. Schmidt and the family still keep in touch.
Schmidt enjoys being the veteran teacher, and said it’s fun when someone she taught in fourth grade becomes a colleague, or when her former students’ children are in her class. She said it makes for fun parent-teacher conferences.
Growing up, what book inspired or influenced you to become a teacher?
Not one specific book, but Schmidt said she has a general love of books and reading. Schmidt was part of a book club when she was a kid, and had her nose in a book so often that her mother would yell at her to go play outside. She recalled “running away” once when she was little, all she packed was a suitcase full of books that she read in the backyard until it got dark and she went back home.