Alumna, MA in Teaching, Exceptional Student Education
As a parent of three and a former stay-at-home mom, Linda Morales was no stranger to the term “parent involvement.”
Whether it was chaperoning at school hosted events or participating in PTA meetings, Morales was present and ready to lend a helping hand. Yet when she began to take notice of the academic challenges her eight-year-old daughter constantly faced, Morales’s need to interact with teachers reached a different level.
Her child was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and for Morales, this meant doing all she could to ensure her daughter’s success in the classroom.
“I realized that because she was struggling, it was affecting the way she thought her teachers and her peers viewed her,” Morales said. “I found myself, like I’m sure many other parents, in need of knowing that there were services available.”
Morales embarked on a five-year journey towards obtaining an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for her child. Developed for children who have unique needs that require special education, an IEP is a tailored educational program that helps students with specific disabilities reach their highest potential.
While going through the lengthy process of acquiring an IEP, Morales took on the role of advocate. As she interacted with other families traversing through similar situations, she began to garner a passion for special education.
“Seeing the need for special education teachers who genuinely care for their students is what really drew me,” Morales said. “It felt like (teaching) was my calling.”
In 2018, Morales enrolled at the University of South Florida to pursue a master of arts in teaching through the College of Education’s Exceptional Student Education program. After doing substantial research on the degree program and speaking with an advisor at USF, Morales says she was able to confidently transition into the field.
Morales describes her time at USF as a “growing experience,” thanks to her program’s curriculum, which includes hands-on opportunities such as working as a pre-service teacher and a paraprofessional in K-12 classrooms across the Hillsborough County school district.
Throughout her experiences in the field, Morales has led instruction with the support of on-site mentors and conducted research in designated classrooms in order to improve her teaching practice and self-efficacy.
During her final internship, Morales took on the task of developing an action research project for her pre-K classroom at Pizzo Elementary. Elizabeth Doone, PhD, an instructor at USF and coordinator for the MA in teaching program, says the action research project requires final interns to solve a need they identify in the classrooms they are placed in.
“The project moves our interns into a space where they become more resilient,” Dr. Doone said. “As they solve problems in their own classroom, it increases their confidence in their ability to more than survive, but thrive as teachers.”
After examining the learning progress of her students and speaking with her teaching mentor, Morales felt moved to base her project research on the topic of parent involvement. Instead of creating an action plan to increase parent communication for all students in her classroom, Morales decided to concentrate her research on two of her students and their families by developing weekend assignments for students and parents to work on collaboratively.
When she first launched her project, Morales says she witnessed a positive reaction from parents and students, especially when Monday morning came around.
One of Morales’s students, who was taught how to verbally recognize the letters in his name, reached a major milestone.
“I knew he could look at a letter and visually point it out, but to get him to verbalize it is a different story,” Morales said. “One morning, I pointed to the letter ‘J,’ and he said it clear as day—'J.’ To hear him say that so quickly was pretty exciting because he doesn’t verbally say much.”
Though Morales had to conclude her research early due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,
she continued her duties as a full-time teaching intern by engaging in daily video
conference calls with students and preparing lesson plans with her collaborating teacher.
Throughout her time at Pizzo Elementary, Morales says she has furthered her teaching skills by observing how ESE teachers in her classroom work through their daily routines.
Morales’s mentors, Erin Santiago, a USF alumna and exceptional needs specialist, and Mary Marrs, a pre-K special education instructor, have helped her understand what it means to be a great teacher.
“My mentors are very passionate about what they do,” Morales said. “Whether they’re having a good day or a bad day, students have no way of knowing that and I feel that’s really important.”
Following her graduation in Spring 2020, Morales will begin teaching full-time at
Oak Grove Elementary School in Tampa. She encourages individuals who have an interest
in pursuing a career in special education to go forth with their passions because
there’s a world of students waiting for them.
“Passionate ESE teachers are needed,” Morales said. “Students need you. Parents need you. You are absolutely needed.”
USF's Exceptional Student Education program is designed to prepare teachers to work in classrooms with students who have mild to moderate disabilities. If you have a passion for working with students with exceptionalities, visit our website to explore how our degree programs can help you have a gratifying career in teaching.