Teaching That Starts at the Heart: A Chat With a Special Ed Teacher

Author: Mary Grace Donaldson, Career Advice

Millennials, we’d truly be nothing without the teachers who have shaped our education and our lives.

The good ones have shown us compassion and kindness as well as math and social studies. Some of us took the inspiration we found from our teachers a step further, and entered the education field — some of us even taking the extra step and teaching special education to children with special needs.

We chatted with Dani DiBari, a millennial special education teacher from Connecticut, about what it takes to make it in the field. Here’s what she had to say:

What made you want to start your work in special education?
I always knew I wanted to teach. I thought I really wanted to be a first grade or third grade teacher, and work with a class of kids. Then I had the opportunity to be a one-on-one aide for a student, and I realized there was a whole different side to teaching I had never let myself contemplate before.

How important is a special ed degree when applying for teaching jobs?
A special ed degree is actually preferred when you’re applying for teaching jobs. In education, children with disabilities are placed in the least restrictive environments (LRE). This means they stay in the regular classroom with their peers as much as possible. With the kids with mild disabilities in regular ed classrooms, a special ed degree makes sure you can help all your students reach their full potential.

What have you learned in your time in the field so far?
The most important thing I’ve learned is to accept help from wherever it comes. Especially in education, there are always new techniques and new strategies being developed. Other people with more experience will know more than you, so if you ever need help with something, ask. With all the paperwork that needs to be completed and sent out that is related to special ed, it can be easy to overlook or forget things. Asking and accepting people’s help makes sure you do what you need to.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned working with children with special needs?
The biggest thing I’ve learned as a special ed teacher is how to talk to a child’s parents. No parent ever wants to hear that their child is anything other than perfect, and sometimes we have to tell parents pretty tough news. Special ed teachers hold annual meetings with parents, school administrators, and any support staff (speech, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and so on) to discuss their child’s progress, and knowing how to deliver not-so-great news is crucial.

How important are new technologies in the special ed classroom?
It really depends on the child’s need. Some students with more challenging disabilities really benefit from using technologies in the classroom. There are devices that will read tests to them, help them communicate, or help them get around the school. Other technologies will be helpful to students whose first language is different from English. There are devices that will translate work for them so they understand it better. However, students with more mild disabilities may be just fine with pencil and paper, and maybe a calculator.

What’s the one thing you’d like to advocate on behalf of your students?
One thing I really want people to know about my students is that a test is not always the best measure of their abilities. Some of my students have trouble with reading comprehension. They don’t understand what they read as easily as other children. To help with this, I don’t usually give my students tests in the subjects I teach them. In the other subjects, I read them their tests as much as possible. The problem is, the universal measuring tool for whether a student qualifies for or doesn’t qualify for special ed is: a test. I’ve seen the results of that test determine whether or not an eighth grade student got into a particular high school. Our students are just like any other student — some of them are not good test-takers. And that needs to be taken into account when they are being considered for things. A test is not the only way to assess their abilities. It’s not the be-all-and-end-all.

How important are professional mentors in the special ed field?
Extremely. Especially for a new teacher, there are so many things that you may never have done before. Having a mentor teacher is an invaluable resource. I asked my mentor teacher a zillion questions a day, and I’m a better teacher for it.

What advice would you have for millennials who also want to pursue teaching special education?
I would advise them to make sure it’s really something they want to do. Special ed is more involved than regular ed. You work with smaller groups of kids at a time, but the kids you work with need more time and attention than kids in regular ed classes. If you don’t have that amount of patience or willingness to try new things or think outside the box, special ed is not for you.

Why would you encourage other millennials to become special ed teachers?
The rewards are crazy. My favorite part of teaching has always been what I call “the a-ha moment.” It’s that moment when you see the child’s brain click, when they understand what you’re teaching them. In special ed, because the group sizes are smaller than a regular class, I get to see those moments up close and personal.

What’s the one thing you wish you knew before entering into this field?
I wish I knew how hard it would be to get into the field. I probably would have been more proactive about getting my special ed certification, and hopefully that would have made getting a job easier.

What has most surprised you so far?
How much I like teaching middle schoolers. I had always worked with elementary schoolers and I thought that was where I wanted to be forever. Then, I had the opportunity to work with seventh and eighth graders and I was surprised to find out that I really love it. I come home every day with stories about my students, and they make me laugh all the time. I even had a group of seventh grade girls planning how my boyfriend should propose to me. In case you were wondering, they thought it should happen in the school parking lot, with a big sign that said “Will you marry me?” and a boom box over his head like John Cusack in Say Anything.


Dani DiBari is a Elementary and Special Education teacher from Wilton, CT, and currently teaches special education in Bridgeport, CT. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary and Special Education from Salve Regina University and a Master’s degree in Education from Sacred Heart University. 

3 Ways Millennials Can Learn About Personal Finance for Free

Adulting, Author: #NAMB Guest Author

When it comes to money, millennials know that they owe a lot of it — especially when it comes to student loans. More so than any other generation, millennials are feeling the squeeze of student loan debt, with the average borrower in 2016 having nearly $28,000 in loans. In fact, the national student loan debt now stands at $1.4 trillion (up from $260 billion in 2004), and is predicted to continue growing.

Student loan debt can largely be attributed to the ballooning cost of college tuition and fees, which has far outpaced the rate of inflation.  But it can also be chalked up to the number of American college students who willingly sign up for substantial debt, seemingly without any real idea of what the loan documents mean or how difficult it will be to repay these loans.

Money makes the world go round, and yet so many Americans know so little about it. Financial literacy appears to be largely unimportant in the United States, with only 17 states requiring students to take a course in personal finance in order to graduate.

This leaves many millennials in the difficult position of learning about how money works after they’re already out in the real world — with a job, bills and student loan payments.  If they haven’t been fortunate enough to learn about personal finance from their families or in high school or college, how can they learn about it now?

Luckily, there are some great free options available for millennials who want to learn about personal finance, and they don’t even require you to leave your home. With a laptop and a strong internet connection, you can take advantage of these courses and learning modules to take control of your finances and be on your way to financial security.

Family Finance Course
This course is offered through Utah State University. Over the span of 14 units, students are taught the basics of personal finance, including budgeting, taxes, debt, major purchases, mortgages and even creating a financial file. Each unit takes approximately 100 minutes to complete, and includes an action step at the end to help you work towards the ultimate goal: coming up with a financial plan of your own.

Free Personal Finance Course
The University of Arizona offers a free 15-unit course for all to take. It covers variety of topics through a series of posts, organized in a way that helps you go from more basic concepts of financial literacy to more complex issues. At the end of each lesson is a quiz to test you on what you have learned. With this course, you don’t have to enroll and can move at your own pace, making it ideal for anyone who wants to learn more about personal finance without being tied down to more specific course requirements.

Fundamentals of Personal Finance
The University of California-Irvine offers this course, which is aimed at individuals who want to get their finances in shape but cannot afford a personal financial planner. It has eight general topics: goals, figuring out where you are financially, taxation, keeping bad things from interrupting your goals, investing, funding retirement, college planning and estate planning basics. Each of these eight objectives or goals has between one and six lessons, and you can choose among the different topics. The lessons are all available online, and the entire course will take approximately 25 to 30 hours to complete.


Each of these courses each are geared towards general personal finance issues. There are other specific free online courses on topics such as credit, retirement, buying a home and more.  They are typically offered through universities, and are offered free of charge for all learners — including millennials.

Financial literacy is a skill that is valuable at all stages of life, from high school to college and beyond. It can assist you in choosing a college that helps you avoid going into significant student loan debt, in living within your means while in school, and in paying back your loans quickly after you have graduated. Financial literacy is also the key to reaching your other goals after you are out of undergraduate or graduate school, such as saving for retirement, buying a house, or even getting married or having kids. With a wealth of free online courses and other options available, there is no excuse for not learning as much as possible about the world of personal finance — and taking charge of your finances.


About the Author: 

Drew Cloud is a journalist who typically writes about student loans, personal finance and education. He always had a knack for reporting throughout high school and college where he picked up his topics of choice. Since his graduation from college, Drew wanted to funnel his creative energy into an independent, authoritative news outlet covering an exclusive and developing industry. Thus, the Student Loan Report was born. You can reach out to him at drew@studentloans.net.

Why Many Millennials in Nigeria May End Up Unhappy Adults

Author: #NAMB Guest Author, Real Life Stories


Recently, my friend Morris Ogbowu uploaded pictures from his college graduation on Facebook. Now, this is not a strange occurrence in our social media generation, but this one was special — and let me tell you why.

From 2010-2012, I studied Electrical Electronics Engineering at Rivers State College of Arts and Science (RIVCAS), and it was a very beautiful two years for me. Not necessarily because of the school or course of study, but because it was in those two years I finally discovered and strongly decided to follow my purpose, which has led me to where I am now.

Back to the story…so Morris was my classmate in RIVCAS and he was just a fun guy. I remember us bursting bars in class and talking about music, poetry and his mixtapes.

Mixtapes and Missed Tests
Usually most people who attend RIVCAS (and colleges generally around Nigeria) are those who are awaiting university admission or maybe hoping to go to the university from there, but don’t want to be idle at home during the period.

Morris missed classes and tests while we were in RIVCAS. At the time he didn’t look very serious, but in retrospect I can now understand that it was because he wasn’t very motivated—it wasn’t his fault. Of course, this is not to make a case for young people who miss classes and tests. But the truth is when people are not motivated about a certain cause, the first way they show it is through reluctance. It’s a normal human response.

I believe many young people are disconnected from school today for many reasons, but two are paramount. First, we haven’t found the right way to educate them. The system we currently use was built for a world that no longer exists.

When you watch TED talks by Sir Ken Robinson or Professor Sugata Mitra, you get a deeper understanding of this philosophy. When I spoke with Sir Ken Robinson last year on my podcast series, “The Stroll Live,” we also discussed this.

The second reason is the crux of this article—it is the reason I think many young people in Nigeria (and many other countries) will grow up to become unhappy adults—and it is that the current system doesn’t help many young people to discover and harness their talents, potentials, or gifting.

Morris would usually draw sketches or write rap verses and perform them to entertain the class. We would often share his mixtapes among ourselves via Bluetooth, and he would also ask for us to rate him.


The Search for Genius
Fast forward to the end of the story. Morris left RIVCAS before our Elect/Elect Class graduated in 2012, and after a while he told me he had moved out of Nigeria. But this was still not the solution. This is Morris narrating to me what happened after he left:

“ I got here and applied to Carleton University for Mechanical Engineering but couldn’t get in because the program was full. Then I got offered Computer Science and promised a spot in Mechanical Engineering the next year. The year came and I wasn’t shortlisted for a transfer because I didn’t do well enough in Computer Science. So I tried Computer Science again for a second year and nothing changed, I had no love for it or any intentions of spending my life as a programmer. I made good friends, though…”

So all this happened between 2012 and 2014. Nothing has changed. His experiences so far were almost like RIVCAS all over again. It was in the midst of this confusion he found purpose. Hear Morris:

“In September 2014, I registered for the third year. Then January came and I made the decision to drop all my courses and go back to my childhood love for art. Not nearly long enough, I exhibited my artworks all over the Ontario province and took that as a sign. Later in the year I researched and found out that a career as a professional Illustrator and Concept Artist was the right path for me so I enrolled and chased it. The first year I sat in a class amongst students who were familiar with what was going on but these were my first encounters with Adobe programs or digital tablets. It took me another year to crack through the program but I’m glad I stuck with it and tried again.”

The same Morris who was labeled a ‘slow learner’ or ‘not-intelligent enough’ by lecturers following his academic performance at RIVCAS turned out to be a genius who graduated with an outstanding portfolio for the media and design industry, because he finally found where he could germinate in his natural area of gifting—in the soil best for him!

What is the moral of the story? I don’t think the magic happened because Morris left Nigeria. There are many young people who thrive in Nigeria without necessarily having to leave the shores. However, my emphasis is on the fact that the path we have set our kids on—Nigerian millennials and those coming behind them—is usually one that prepares them to join the crowd rather than stand out in their uniqueness.


Morris working on his canvas

Everybody is a Star, Just Find Your Sky
I don’t have answers to all the problems in life. Don’t read this expecting to hear the perfect solution or anything like that. But one thing I know very well is that one way to be unfulfilled and unhappy is to try imitating the lives of other people — forgetting or being oblivious of the fact that we have our own gifting and uniqueness.

Education is gotten from two Latin root words: ‘educare’ and ‘educere,’ which means to “bring up” and “bring out” respectively. However most of the educators we have today are more interested in “putting in knowledge” and in some cases “flogging in” when the students don’t get it.

Also, I hope reading this piece hasn’t given you the feeling that the arts are greater than the sciences? Nahhhh, that’s not what I am trying to say. I know so many young people (naturally built for the sciences) who are doing very well and flourishing in their own soil.

My friend and fellow Port Harcourt Global Shaper, Ifeanyi Orajaka, is doing very well as a leader in Elect/Elect as he’s fulfilling our God’s command, “…let there be light…” for many rural off-the-grid communities in Africa. Oseni Oluwatobi has been moving around Nigeria and West Africa since we said “Happy New Year” in January, raising techies and teaching young people to code. These are just two examples in the sciences that I know personally, there are many more

My point is we cannot continue to prepare millennials for the future this way—without taking their purpose and passion into consideration. We are too smart to be reduced to just cramming stuff to score A’s and B’s. Okay, 100 years ago that was a great invention. Now? I don’t think it is enough. Who knows how many more Morris’ are just slowly dying away in our system. Held down, stifled, killed.

Their blood will be on our hands.

Editor’s Note: This is a version of a story that originally appeared on The Huffington Post

About the Author: 


Ebenezar Wikina hails from Kono in Khana Local Government Area of Rivers State, Nigeria. He is a digital journalist who is passionate about the role of new media in advancing the work of diplomacy and sustainable development. Ebenezar currently serves as Digital Communications/Research Officer at the Government of Rivers State Sustainable Development Goals Office. He contributes regularly on various local and international platforms such as; The Huffington Post, Ventures Africa, UNICEF Voices of Youth, City News Port Harcourt; and his writing has been featured on the United Nations Website, the World Economic Forum Blog, Agenda, CNBC Africa, to mention a few.On his globally-read interview column, The Stroll, which he started in 2013 with his mobile phone, Ebenezar has engaged over 120 global leaders and change makers around the world. In November 2014, Ebenezar organized TEDxYouth@OrdinanceRoad, the only TEDxYouth event in West Africa that year, and has previously volunteered for TEDxStadiumRoad, TEDxPortHarcourt and TEDxPortHarcourt Salon. In June 2015 he was one of the outstanding 80 youths and Global Shapers from around Africa selected to represent their hubs and countries at the 25th Anniversary of the World Economic Forum on Africa which held in Cape town, South Africa, where he was also a speaker at a public session on “technology and media consumption.” In June 2016, Ebenezar was elected Curator of the Port Harcourt Global Shapers Hub which has one mandate, to #ShapePortHarcourt. Connect with Ebenezar on Twitter @EbenezarWikina