We Are Here: Amber Casey on Teaching with Open Arms
"We are here." It's a phrase that's been echoed by single moms and in city chambers and around encampments, and we couldn't get it out of our heads.
These are the stories of those experiencing and fighting housing insecurity here in Cincinnati. We believe telling stories changes things. We believe listening changes things. We promised the community that we would tell their stories. It's up to you to listen. Visit womenofcincy.org/housing for the full series.
When we talked with Amber Casey, a Cincinnati Public School (CPS) teacher, she was preparing to spend her summer in Los Angeles to support her daughter’s acting ambitions. In the course of conversation, it became clear that Casey is a woman who loves deeply, whether that is in her classroom as a special education teacher with an “open arms” motto, or in her personal life with a cross country journey for her family. She brings that love to her students, who have a range of special needs, individualized educational programs, and accessibility challenges, and often face housing insecurity, as well.
Tell me about yourself.
I’m a teacher. I’ve been teaching for six years, special ed. I have a multiple disabilities unit, and I teach at Frederick Douglass School, which is part of Cincinnati Public Schools. We are in Walnut Hills. I have a 9-year-old daughter. I have a husband; he's also a teacher who teaches preschool. We live on the East Side, and we’re headed to the West Coast.
How did you get started teaching, specifically in the age level and type of teaching you do?
It’s kind of a long story. I had my bachelor’s in English, and I was in Carson Elementary in Price Hill as a paraprofessional. I had my daughter as a single mom at the time, and I'm trying to figure out how to make ends meet, and I’m living at home with my parents. I met this preschool teacher, and we kind of became friends, and he’s like, “You need to figure out what you’re going to do. Have you thought about teaching?” And I’m like, “Yes and no.”
Yes and no: That means I have to go back to school; loans. I’m not seeing that this is possible. And he’s like, “If you work it out, I’ll stay after school and help you with your homework.”
So I went home to my parents and said, “I’m going back to school.”
And they were like, “Cool, we’ll keep the baby.” I commuted to Dayton every day, and that preschool teacher, who is now my husband, stayed after school and helped me with the homework for a year and a half.
My license is K-12, so I graduated and started applying. I get a call saying, “Hey, there's an opening at Frederick Douglass, a multiple disability unit, K-2.” What does that mean? You have eight students total. Some autism; most of them behavioral issues. Things like that. So that's where I started. And then two years later, that teacher who had fourth through sixth grade retired. This school year, we have a high volume of kindergarteners that came in, so now my grade level is second through sixth. It's a huge range, but you do what you need to do so everybody can have good service.
A sixth grader is worried about adult problems. How can you compete with that with math and reading?
Why did you pick that specialization?
I always liked helping kids. At the time, I didn't know I was going to choose special ed, but I knew there was a huge need for special ed teachers, and I knew I wanted to get something out of it. And as I was applying to grad school, this program just happened to be available with special ed, and I wanted to try it. I got into the classes and ended up learning more than what I thought I would, about autism, about hearing loss, about this, about that, and I just started loving it. And now I don't want to leave. I love it. The more I learned, the more I started being intrigued by the details, and I wanted to do it. And you know, the first day I stepped in my room and I see these kids; I literally got so emotional.
Since you have that age range (of second through sixth grade), you've had kids who have progressed with you.
I see them progress. On the flip side, I’ve seen some that haven’t progressed. You know, that's where I do my reflection, like is it me; is it the disability; did I give it my it everything?
Has it been what you expected it to be when you were in school?
You know what, no, because I had never been in a public school [as a student]. The culture of being in an urban, 100 percent free and reduced lunch [student population]... I can remember calling my parents like, “Maybe you guys should have put me in a public school for a year or two, because this is completely different than the Catholic school that my siblings and I have always been in.”
So it was a shocker to me. And then I didn't know – with the disabilities, it didn’t dawn on me: That means changing diapers; that means feeding, sometimes; that means cradling. That means teaching might be the last thing to do because they're hungry; they need some love. You know, they need their face wiped, their hair combed.
I thought I would walk in and just start teaching, because that's what they teach you. No. Nothing like that. So it was a surprise – but a great surprise – because I've been able to build that relationship. I’m close with their families. I talk to their moms at least once a week; make sure everything’s okay. Teaching is the last thing I do, if that makes sense.
For a lot of people, that turns the idea on its head. You have to get to everything else before you can do the teaching.
If Johnny is sitting there and his stomach is growling, is he really going to listen to me teaching two plus three? When my stomach is growling, I can't think of other things. Or you know, if you’re coming to school and people are talking about you because your pants are dirty… So then I'm on a hunt to find pants, and I put them in the washer quick, and let him eat lunch in my classroom so no one sees him.
How do you deal with those things as a teacher? How do you approach those kinds of issues?
You know, as a human, I put that first. I really do. I have a really close relationship with my principal, and he gets it. I'm like, yeah, I have this lesson plan and I've not done any of it, because this person came in like this, and this person came in like this, and I needed to address these needs. Because the moment they walk out of my classroom, they’re surrounded by other kids, and I just can't have their self-esteem killed and not give them a fair chance. So I really put the human part first.
Maybe it’s the mother in me, as well. You want to do everything for these kids that you can. I hug my kids when they walk in. I don’t know if they’ve been hugged. One of my students is like, “Ms. Casey, can I have a hug? I didn’t hug my mommy last night.” You think I’m ever going to tell them no? And they have bed bugs. And I’m like, “Come here, yes, come here.”
How do you deal with things like the dirty pants or the hunger issues? Do you have the resources in your classroom to help?
CPS is really good about what they call a “power pack,” and it's through the Freestore Foodbank. Just brown bags full of food, some canned things. It's not fresh, because they have to take it home. Ravioli, pudding, cereal. I keep a couple in the room, as well, just for days when it’s like, “Ms Casey, I’m hungry.” And I also spend my own money. We try to keep maybe granola bars, you know, something quick on hand. The principal helps us out; the cafeteria will help us out. Pretty much all hands on deck when it comes to these children. Most teachers at my school, we keep a stash of something, and our school nurse, she has extra clothes, of all ages, levels, small, medium, large. The few times I did need to use her, she gave my student some pants; we washed his. You just see the smile. It’ll make you keep going every time.
When you've had kids in your classroom who are homeless, what additional challenges does that introduce for them?
One, I think it’s the mental. You have the cards you were dealt, having a disability. One particular student, he was in sixth grade, so he understood what it meant to be homeless. He’s asking, “Ms. Casey, can I tell you something? Can I take two pairs of pants home?”
And then after that, I’m like, “Can we get to this math?”
And he’s like, “Ms. Casey, to be honest, I’m really not in the mood to do that.” He’s told me that. Now I’m making the choice: Do I choose to respect what he’s saying? I know if I teach it, he’s not going to receive it. He’ll say, “I’m worried about my mom; I’m worried about this.” I’m like, wow, a sixth grader is worried about adult problems. How can you compete with that with math and reading?
Do you think you teach differently because you're a parent?
Oh. Absolutely. Even comparing me before I had a child versus me having a child. I just naturally want to care for the kids. I think I’m a better teacher because I'm a parent. I look at it from the parent perspective all the time. If I were in this situation, how would I want my kids to be treated? Open arms is really the motto in our classroom.
I’ve cried with my students. One particular student has been through hell and back. And I’ve cried on the floor, just cuddling her, at least once a week. She’ll cuss me out, and I mean cuss, like an adult. And this will go on for like, a half hour. After she's thought about it, she'll come to me, and we’ll hit the floor and hug. And it's okay, because I know you're angry. And it’s not toward me, but you know no other way.
So you have to love teaching in order to stay with it. You know you’re not going to be rich.
You’re truly there to help children, because you want to see all children win. I want to see children win.
Who’s a woman who’s been an influence, either in your personal life or professional life?
I have to say my mother. I know that’s so cliche. My mother has never told me anything wrong, even when I did the opposite of what she told me to do. Now that I have a child, I have come to her to say, “Mom, I am so sorry. And thank you. I didn’t know you would be right about everything.” She’s like, “Amber, life is the best lesson. That’s why I tell you, keep on living. You’ll come back. It’s a revolving door.”