SHS special education teacher wants students to know they are more than just a grade

‘The numbers may matter but, you can’t reduce yourself to what a piece of paper says,’ Levi Derber said.

Levi Derber, Special Education teacher for Seneca Township High School

Levi Derber didn’t take the traditional path into teaching. He bounced around a bit until he discovered his niche in special education.

Derber wanted to be a firefighter and was taking EMT classes while he was a teacher’s aide in Somonauk when he discovered his passion for special education.

“It was just a job to make money, but it turned out to be the best job I had,” Derber said.

“After some encouragement from those around me, I went back to get my special education degree at Northern [Illinois University] and then got a job at La Salle-Peru High School, eventually obtaining my master’s from the [University of Illinois],” he said. “So it was a little bit nontraditional.”

Working as a teacher’s aide opened Derber’s eyes to the everyday trials and tribulations some students go through on a daily basis.

“The main reason I got into special ed was to help the kids with the deck stacked against them,” he said. “I felt like I had a purpose there.”

The battles the students go through everyday only escalated with the pandemic, and discovering new ways to adjust with students who were already struggling was a massive challenge, he said.

“I feel like kids have enough barriers as it is to education via their own attention, their own behavior, their learning difficulty, something at home, whatever it is,” he said. “There are are so many barriers to education already and then you put a computer screen in front of them – another barrier.”

Derber said he settled for the small victories, empathized with the students, and in the end, year one was a success.

“I really give the administration a lot of credit because we figured out a way to make it work,” Derber said.

“We have small class sizes here, so we are able to spread out, but there was still a sense of, ‘we are all in this together,’” he said. “I think the lesson we all learned is being in the building with the seats filled is something that cannot just be replaced.”

Derber is a firm advocate for co-teaching, where there are two instructors in the class.

“The greatest benefit of co-teaching is accountability,” he said. “With us in the classroom, you have instant accountability, I know your accommodations have been followed, you can give me all the excuses you want, but in the end you didn’t do your job.”

Derber wants his students to understand their value as an individual, not just the numbers they may see on an exam. When speaking to his students about their pre-LSAT exam, he noticed his students’ walls go up immediately.

“The test means something, but it doesn’t mean everything,” he said. “It can’t test how hard you work or how kind you are. It can’t test your value as a person, you are not a number, you are a person. The numbers may matter, but you can’t reduce yourself to what a piece of paper says. That is what I want to pass on to my students.”