Sara Berlin, 32, has a special place in her heart for children with special needs.
A Marylander through and through, she grew up in Columbia and studied at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for her undergraduate degrees in psychology and early childhood education. She completed her master’s work in teaching severe and profound handicapped children at Johns Hopkins University.
Berlin always knew she wanted to make a difference in the lives of others, but despite being a third-generation educator, the choice to work with children with special needs wasn’t entirely clear from the start.
Berlin met up with the JT at the Arbutus Branch of the Baltimore County Library, where she also works, to talk about what drives her passion to work with children who pose the greatest challenges to any educator.
How did you become interested in teaching and why special education?
My father was [a teacher] and my mom’s mom before him. I’ve always loved children. I was always the babysitter and the kid on the block who had other kids around them. Originally when I went to college, I thought I wanted to be a social worker. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to make an impact, and even then it was with children. In my freshman year, I wound up volunteering with Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters and was matched with a young adult with cerebral palsy. I started working very closely with her. I was still studying psychology and social work at UMBC, but I remember sitting in my dorm room and having this moment of, ‘Who am I kidding? This is what I’m supposed to do.’ I had this amazing opportunity to work with this young adult, and through her [I got involved with] the JCC in Baltimore. She and I participated in their programs together, and I actually wound up being employed there. It changed my life. It completely solidified that not only was I meant to be a teacher, but a special needs teacher. And specifically, it’s the population with severe special needs that I really love and was meant to work with.
Where are you working now?
I’m on a hiatus from the classroom. I taught for 10 years at Baltimore County Public Schools teaching kindergarteners with moderate to severe autism. I still work for the county, but now I’m a consulting teacher so I work with first-year teachers. Primarily, I help them become professionals and develop their skills. And I have the privilege of working with only special education teachers so I get to go into their classrooms and help them become really great educators.
Does any one student really stand out?
I credit [the young adult with cerebral palsy] with changing my path in my life, but I have had the privilege of working with so many incredible kids that I can’t point to just one. I really love the truly challenging students — the ones [about whom] people have said, ‘They can’t do it,’ or ‘They’re not capable.’ I think every child is capable and every child can learn. It’s up to us as teachers to figure out how to reach these children. Whether it is communication or some other life skill we’re working on, I love that challenge. They push me as a professional and as a person to grow and think outside of my box.
What is something people don’t understand about children with special needs?
I think we get so caught up on what they can’t do that we forget all the things they can do. In team meetings with parents, I always want to start with what [their children] are doing well, who are they as a person, what do they like? I start with that because even small progress is progress, and we have to be willing to embrace every small victory. For some of these families it’s huge, and for these kids it’s so important. All of these kids are capable. It’s up to us to figure out how we [can] connect with them.