Special Education Teacher | Red Lick Middle School
Being a parent of children with special needs, Michelle O’Gorman feels this helped shape who she became as an educator. “I have one daughter who is hard of hearing and another daughter with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This gave me a unique perspective when I decided to begin my career in education. I completely understood how overwhelming it could be from initial evaluation to transitioning,” O’Gorman says. “To this day, I begin every ARD meeting, remembering what it was like on the other side of that table.”
O’Gorman began her educational career with Red Lick Middle School later in life after staying home with her two daughters for 16 years. “It was a natural transition for me, as I had spent so much time involved in my children’s academic life. I realized early on my passion for advocating for and educating individuals,” O’Gorman says. Special education has always been a very familiar world to her, starting as a parent with numerous acronyms and legalities and continuing through her 12-year career with the Red Lick Mustangs.
“I could easily fill the pages of a book with the humorous, emotional, and poignant stories that fill my days,” O’Gorman says. “At the start of my career, I once had a student stop at the door and ask me if I would let him in the classroom that day since he was wearing an Arkansas Razorback hoodie! All my students knew I was a fierce Aggie, so he decided to see how maroon my blood really was. I let him in.”
Speaking of stories, O’Gorman’s classroom coffee/soda cart – Hugs with Mugs/Soda with Love – has many stories revolving around it. O’Gorman says, “I received a grant to start this program around six years ago. I could have never imagined the impact it would have on me and my students. We sell coffee or soda (depending on the season) every other Friday to staff on our campus. Students organize supplies, help fill orders, deliver drinks, and take money. We budget, keep up with inventory, and create a spreadsheet of funds. All profits are used to buy snacks for our classroom!” Not only has this program aided students in developing financial literacy and practical life skills, but it has also accomplished something much more important: it has given students the agency and confidence they need to grow as people. “Watching self-esteem and confidence grow with each passing Friday has been the most amazing gift of all,” O’Gorman says. “One year, I had a student who wanted nothing to do with our cart. For some reason, he had decided he hated the idea. Well, I wish I could share my photos of the change in him that took place. It brings laughter and tears as I look through them today. Another student was incredibly shy and did not like to advocate for himself in any way. He found his voice during our Friday adventures. The milestones reached, tears shed, hugs given, and confidence grown has been priceless.”
O’Gorman believes her students truly become her kids when they enter middle school in fifth grade. She says, “I am one of the lucky ones who get to keep their kids the entire four years at Red Lick Middle School! My students view our classroom as an oasis in the desert. Navigating middle school is hard for any student, but so much more so for students with special needs. Our classroom is where my kids go to learn, de-escalate, get fed, retrieve supplies, and feel loved and connected.”
Education certainly comes with its challenges and rewarding moments. O’Gorman recounts the most rewarding part of her career, and it might be different than what most people assume as she says, “The most rewarding part of what I do is the lifelong connections built with students and their families. I am not one of those teachers who will get letters 15 years later from former students, but oh my, I get so much more. I get to be part of the families of the students I serve and form bonds beyond middle school.” O’Gorman believes her biggest challenge is not people but rather paperwork. She wants every PLAAFP and IEP to truly reflect the student and create meaningful goals. “In today’s educational climate, I sometimes feel that I am one of the few who still truly love what they do. I know this is not the case; educators are feeling frustrated on so many levels. Going into education is not for the faint of heart, but the rewards far outweigh the challenges. We as a society need to find a way to prioritize education and fill the halls of every university’s education department,” O’Gorman says. However, no matter how difficult the day, O’Gorman’s motivation is always just one hug from the student who rarely shows affection or an accidental “hey, Mom” away.
At the end of the day, it is not only students learning lessons but also their educators. O’Gorman believes her greatest lessons learned have nothing to do with curriculum or standardized testing but rather that love, passion, and kindness can change the world. This rings true with a quote on her favorite desk calendar stating, “Sometimes the things your students need most have nothing to do with what is on your lesson plan.”