Class of 2022: Special education major wants to end late diagnoses of disabilities

Class of 2022: Special education major wants to end late diagnoses of disabilities

W hen her friend was diagnosed with a learning disability in high school, special education major Ileana DeJesus was ignited with passion for children with learning disabilities—and supporting them in the classroom. 

“I wanted to be a doctor, and it’s kind of a funny story, because I was horrible at biology in 9th grade,” she said. “Now, I teach high school biology, so I’ve come full-circle.”

Right now, the Henry County native is a student teacher of biology at Jones County High School in Gray, Georgia. With her partner teacher, DeJesus teaches three classes with a mix of students—those without disabilities, alongside special education students. Her students typically have a mild disability, but the work still presents challenges.

 “A lot of our students have low reading levels,” she said. “I have kids who are in 9th, 10th and 11th grade who have the reading level of second graders and the reading comprehension of third graders.”

The challenge, though, is why she does it. In one classroom, DeJesus may have children in her class who need attention, have trouble with motivation or lack vocabulary. To teach them she has to be creative and break complex topics into their most basic parts.

Ileana DeJesus.
Ileana DeJesus.

“Reward doesn’t come that day, the next day, in a week or in a month,” she said. “It’s very frustrating—I don’t want to sugarcoat it—but when a student gets a concept, it’s like we made it together.”

When a student gets a concept, it’s like we made it together.
– Ileana DeJesus

Some of her students are placed in her class because of behavior. This presents DeJesus with a unique opportunity to make a mark on their lives. 

“I’m glad when I have a second to talk to them, like they’re people,” she said. “They might not get it now, but hopefully they’ll look back and think, ‘That one lady told me I can’t be rude to others because of what I’m going through.’”

Her approach to teaching, informed by experience and her Georgia College professors, is soft but firm. DeJesus’ cohort leader Mary Hiller Crook, limited term lecturer of teacher education, inspired her approach through encouragement and support.

“I had a professor who said ‘the earliest and easiest respect is learning somebody’s name correctly,’” DeJesus said. “That really stuck with me. I think about my friends who went to other schools in classes of 270 and their professors aren’t learning their names.”

DeJesus is on her way to become a two-time graduate of Georgia College. She will start the master’s in special education program at Georgia College online in June. In tandem, she’ll teach at the Boyce L. Ansley School in Atlanta, Georgia—a nonprofit, private and tuition-free school for children who have or are experiencing homelessness.

“When I’m an educator, I want to allow space for being a soft and supportive person, but also that person who holds you accountable,” she said.  “When a student is happy to see you, that’s the biggest thing.”