Georgia Gwinnett College special education major practice teaches in the classroom where he was a student
If life truly is a circle, Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) senior Andrew Reynolds, 23, has already made one complete cycle.
Now in his last semester as a special education major at GGC, Reynolds stands out from fellow future educators in the class because he is a product of special education himself.
“Special education” refers to a set of federal and state laws and regulations designed to educate millions of children with disabilities and serve as a safety net for those unable to take advantage of the mainstream school curriculum without help. In short, it is a system of support available for students with learning differences.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than seven million students, or about 14% of those ages 3 to 21 in public schools, were entitled to special services and accommodations to help with learning in the 2019-20 school year.
“There are many different ways you can get placed into special education,” said Reynolds. “I was always academically gifted, but I had to work on controlling my anger and my emotions. I had a huge temper issue. Somebody would do something I disagreed with, and I would get furious and start destroying things. I just couldn’t control myself.”
The administrators at Harbins Elementary School in Dacula, Georgia, placed Reynolds in a special education class for Emotional Behavior Disorder (EBD) to help him. His teachers included Leigh Rimpau and her colleagues Mandy McGee and Thomas Woolfolk.
“The special education program is a way to help students who don’t learn as easily as other students or have other difficulties learning, like me,” said Reynolds. “I had the capability, but my inability to handle my emotions would get in the way. Mrs. Rimpau taught me how to calm down, focus, and control myself. She was a huge influence in how I developed from being a student who wasn’t doing what he needed to do, to getting to where I needed to be. She changed my life, and I have never forgotten it.”
Rimpau’s class made such an impact on Reynolds that, years later when he graduated from Archer High School, he decided to dedicate his life to helping other young people like him.
Reynolds said he came to GGC because its special education program has an excellent reputation.
“The main reason why I wanted to get into special education as an educator is that I want to be an example and show students that just because you’re in special education, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be there for the rest of your life,” he said. “We’re here to help you get the extra support you need. Once you get that support and improve – wonderful! Then we’re going to wean you off of it and get you back into the regular ed classroom.”
Reynolds also wants to use his story to help change the general perception of special education.
“There is a stigma to special education. People need to know there are a lot of different reasons we need special education in schools – it’s not just because kids aren’t smart,” he said.
Reynolds credits his professors at GGC for keeping him on the path to success, particularly in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he said, his educational journey changed dramatically. He had to shift from in-person classes to taking classes online for the remainder of his school career, minus his field placements. Amid all that chaos, he said, his special education professors — Dr. Matthew Boggan, professor of special education and interim chair of faculty and studies, Dr. Mary Kelly, associate professor of teacher education, and Dr. Samantha Mrstik, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction — stepped up to the plate and did yeoman’s work keeping their students moving forward toward their degrees.
“Dr. Kelly, Dr. Boggan and Dr. Mrstik have all been extremely instrumental in my development as a person as well as a teacher,” said Reynolds. “I’ve learned to do things, through them, that I once thought I would never be able to do. I owe the world to them.”
Reynold’s life came full circle again last year as he ventured into the field to do the student teaching required to earn his degree. He was placed in a very special classroom to teach alongside a very special teacher ... at Harbins Elementary School with Leigh Rimpau.
“I feel honored to work around Mrs. Rimpau. She is an excellent teacher who was extremely instrumental in my early development. Without her I would quite possibly not be where I am,” said Reynolds. “She helped mold me into the teacher that I am striving to become.”
“When you teach special education, you don’t see success all the time,” Rimpau said. “I’m getting to the end of my teaching career as he’s getting to the beginning of his. It’s been great to see him teach - he’s been so positive. I’m so proud of him.”
Reynolds said it was surreal at first to return to the same school and classroom where his life changed and see the view standing at the front of the room as opposed to sitting at one of the desks, but the strangeness of it quickly receded.
“The first time I walked back in the door, I said, ‘Huh ... it’s a lot smaller than I remember,’” he said. “Then every memory rushed back, the good and bad. The first time I stood in front of that classroom full of students – all of them sitting where I used to be – I knew I had come around to where I am meant to be.”