Discussing disability with Ramona Norwood
John Adams minority liaison has a personal stake in helping students succeed.
Ramona Norwood, a minority liaison at John Adams Middle School, remembers when she was only one of five minority liaisons in Rochester Public Schools.
Of those five, she’s the last one standing.
As a minority liaison, Norwood works with students and families, school counselors, social workers, and administrators to ensure that students have all the resources they need, related to race, gender, and especially ability.
You’ve been part of RPS for more than eight years now. What initially appealed to you about either the position that they were offering or the organization as a whole?
To give a little background on myself, I've been in education… when I retire, it will be pretty much 40 years. I have been a special ed teacher — that's my undergrad degree — and regular education. At one point Special Ed consisted not only of children with disabilities and so forth, but also children in the gifted program. So I have been a gifted teacher… at the Chicago Public School District. I also was an administrator, I was assistant principal. So when I moved to Rochester, what appealed to me was – I had pretty much, quote, ‘retired from the classroom’ when I became an administrator, and then left Chicago Public School System. I wasn't at an age to retire. But I resigned because of health issues. And I just wanted to kind of do a bit of educational consulting for parents who have children with special needs.
When I came to Rochester, I want to be honest, I wasn't going to go back any school district. I was just looking. I saw this on the job boards. I wasn’t going through the employment section of Rochester Public School at that time, there was a workforce that was here on Civic Street. I just, you know, looked on the board and the position was there and when it said, “working directly with students and families,” it was just like – “Bing, Bing, Bing!” That's what I wanted to do, not being part of the administration.
I wondered about that! I took a look at your LinkedIn and saw that you were an assistant principal –
Oh, my goodness.
–in Chicago, and that’s such a change.
My best joys were working with the students directly. And being an administrator, it's a lot of the political or policy side. … I feel like I fill in those holes where even a classroom teacher can't get to because they have so many students. And I know that type of feeling when you say, “Oh, gosh, I just wish I had more time to really work with that student one-on-one.” Well, in my position, I can. And that's the pleasure there for me. I just don't have to deal with the politics of administration. I can be right there, hands-on with the families, and with the students, being that support to the classroom teacher. Having been in a classroom as a teacher, knowing the struggles that they're going through, and sometimes giving them that extra eyesight. They sometimes don't see … how a student is failing, and I can give them that information.
Do you think your background in special education affects how you approach the students or the families?
Oh, definitely. That's my strong point. Because I started when students were not even mainstream or in regular ed classrooms, where they were actually separated — not only in the building, but in separate buildings, working with the state. In institutions that were being supervised by the state, and not the city. So I was a special ed teacher going way back, at a school that dealt with disability students that had spinal bifida or (other) physical disabilities. I was in my early 20s then and that was just an awakening experience. It was wonderful, even though the hard thing was parents being able to communicate with children with those disabilities.
If back then, you were trying to help parents communicate with their kids, what are the hurdles you’re up against now?
To be honest, it's the same. You have more resources now. More organizations involved, more things are in place in schools now to help parents. But you still have, I mean, feelings that parents go through sometimes.
To make it an example — my youngest daughter, she is on the spectrum of autism. So I automatically picked it up at (age) 3. I picked it up, where my husband at the time is, “I didn't notice anything, I don't see anything wrong.” I knew just from how she was reacting and things that were going on. And I had the advantage of sharing this with her pediatrician. Even he was a little leery…. But then it's one of the things that I was trained in knowing, so then after that, my pediatrician referred her to see the speech psychologist, and then we went through the testing.
I immediately start(ed) looking for schools that could best serve her, and I was so blessed with a program at a public school in Chicago, where they had an autism program for early childhood students. And I put her in it, and she just flourished. … She graduated as a salutatorian of the high school. ... I wanted to be that support for parents, letting them know the things that they can do for their child, or get them in a program where they educate them on these types of things that they didn't know. So when I give them information, I can say, “I've experienced this, I know, what you're going through or what you're doing.” Going back to your original question, with parents, it's just the (challenge) for them is understanding it. And following up and doing it. You have a ton who are still in denial. You still have those variations of parents, and that has not changed.
Is there anything that you wish more of the people that you work with understood about your job?
I can say at the beginning, it was more of a resistance. Them not understanding why I'm actually there. And you get some fear, thinking, “Who is that person?” Then after they get to know you, “Oh, okay. You know, she's really okay. She's really there for the children.” And I've seen how that has changed where I get truly the support of them, respecting me and realizing that my heart is definitely for their children and families, but also being a teacher to their educator, too. Like, I understand your part as a teacher, and I understand your part as administrator. Because of my experiences, I'm able to communicate with all those different factors of education.
What advice would you have for somebody who is looking to go into special education or a similar liaison position?
I feel that whatever career you go into, let it be a passion for you. And this is definitely with educators, because of all … load of responsibility that is put on teachers. You’ve got to find your rewards in so many different ways. There's the small ones that are just like, “wow, this is why I'm in this.” … It can be so minor, but you take it and grasp that, and there will be many more, you know? If it lights you up, that's when you know that yeah, this is what I’m meant to do, this is why I'm here. If you don't have that passion, and if you’re there for the money … and then if you go into administration, that's definitely an increase in money. But if you go in there, and you just don't like what you're doing, and it's just for that money, then it will burn you out. And it will make you miserable.
I tell people who don't understand educators, I will say 95% of them, maybe sometimes 99% of them are in there because they do have that passion and that love for working with students.
Is there anything that I haven't touched on that you wanted to discuss?
The new wave, I mean, the new generation of society and things going on is, we have to remember the constant inclusion of everyone. And it varies not only when it comes to different cultures now, you know, you have to be aware of gender. You have to keep in mind, the humanity, the human in everyone. And no matter what category you want to put them in, we're talking about people and we’re talking about humans. … You have to be kind to be able to build relationships with people. And once you get that going, then you'll be able to connect. And then that's where you really see your successes coming in.