"All students can learn to succeed, but not on the same day or in the same way." William G. Spady
Tina Morales, special education teacher at Valparaiso High School, lives by these words. Her contributions span broader than just the halls of VHS. Her passion for her career and ability to make anyone laugh is why she is featured as this week's Valpo Life in the Spotlight.
Morales was born in South Bend and was raised there and Niles, Michigan, which was were she attended high school. She graduated Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo in 1991. Soon after, she took a position at Portage High School as a special education teacher for two years. In 1994, she was hired to begin the Life Skills Program at Valparaiso High School for a group of special needs students who were moving up from the middle school, and it's only been uphill from there. The expansion of VHS's Life Skills Program has been tremendous.
"For many years I was the only teacher in the program until the amount of students warranted additional teacher support. I have worked with Mrs. Heather Michalec, Mr. Frank Nimeth and currently with Mrs. Bridget Baird. I am supported by an amazing team of parents, special education teachers, classroom aides, peer tutors and administrators," Morales stated.
Life Skills is the sister program to HOPE Club, which Morales sponsored for 15 years. HOPE Club's goal is to ensure that the students have social lives that keep them excited and happy. Student volunteers go to dances, movies, dinners, parties, and sporting activities. The Life Skills Program celebrated its 20th Anniversary at VHS this past school year. Despite its tenure, it is alive and changing all of the time!
Morales interest in special needs education was sparked at a young age. She worked at a church camp as a teenager in Michigan and when a Special Olympics camp spent the week with them, she realized that working with people who have special needs was her passion. She followed her sister's footsteps, who pursued special education, as well. Morales believes that her favorite part of working at the high school is her ability to experience the best of both worlds—working with her Life Skills students and typical high school students. The different opinions and personalities always lead to a good time.
"I got my degree so I could work with students who have special needs, but in my program, I also get to work with students who are typical learners. I am blessed to work with both populations and see high school students show compassion and think about someone other than themselves. I have seen many peer tutors go on to become teachers, and some who know they aren't called to be a teacher but who have huge hearts and enjoy being with our class," stated Morales.
Morales is a huge supporter of creativity in the classroom. VHS's Life Skills programed opened the Simply Gifted Coffee House last school year. Students in the program take a coffee cart around every day first hour. Teachers can reserve the coffee house to bring into their classrooms. Students and peer tutors team up to serve drinks to the class before they sit down to work. Teenage volunteers work the coffee house before school by serving drinks to students who come by. During the day, students with special needs offer coffee in other ways.
"As a directive from the State of Indiana, we enhanced our vocational program and with the support of Dr. Amones, we were able to bring to life the idea offered by Mrs. Kris Arthur to open a coffee house in a space adjoining the media center. This has been the most exciting offering we have brought to our students in years. They are learning so many vocational skills necessary for their futures and the school is truly seeing our students as the productive workers they can be," Morales said.
Not only does Morales have an exciting work life, she also manages to spice up her life by serving as one of the high school's Natural Helpers facilitators. Natural Helpers is a retreat that happens twice a year. The students who attend are elected by their fellow peers. When Morales was asked to be one of the sponsors, she was humbled and eager hop on board.
"I believe in this program and what it does for the students who are able to participate. It also gives me another opportunity to see students outside of the classroom and have an impact on them," she said.
In conclusion, it is evident that Morales makes a difference wherever she goes. Laughter constantly follows her and her ability to understand and empathize with the students is what makes Morales stand out in the VHS community. When asked if she had any wise words for future generations, she definitely left us with something we all should remember.
"Don't be apathetic. Do something. Help someone. Care. Be the smile you wish you were receiving. Dance in the grocery store with strangers when you can't get past their cart. Reach for something on a high shelf for someone. Hold a door for someone. Interact with the people around you. It's so much more fun than going about your business day by day."