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Teacher Spotlight: Napa Street’s Polly Buller-Ulm on encouraging parents of special-needs students to ‘dream big’ for them

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | October 16, 2019

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This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.

After more than 20 years working in the insurance industry, Polly Buller-Ulm thought it wasn’t too late to pursue what she always knew was her true calling in life — working with special-needs kids.

Buller-Ulm’s goal when she decided to go back to school and get her teaching credential was to be the type of educator she would want for her family members with special needs.

“I realized that what I really needed to do was become the kind of teacher that I expected for my loved ones,” she said. This year, marks her seventh teaching special education students at LAUSD’s Napa Street Elementary in Northridge, where 85 percent of children are Latino, 20 percent are special education, and 100 percent live in low-income households.

“I believe that this is my purpose. So as difficult as it was, I still feel 100 percent that it was worth all of the sacrifices, and time and effort because what we do in the special ed program and at school with these kids every day, it’s so fulfilling, so rewarding, and so meaningful… I can’t even put any sort of measurement on the value that brings.”

Buller-Ulm began teaching first grade and transitional kindergarten, but three years ago she decided to teach preschool instead so she could help families get early intervention for their kids with developmental challenges.

“I realized the value of being a part of that program and helping children and families early when their kids are as young as possible so that maybe we could put interventions in place and get more kids into the general ed classes as opposed to the special day classes,” she said.

Buller-Ulm believes her special ed students are capable of excelling when no learning limits are placed on them. She says what has worked for her is partnering with their families by encouraging them to have high expectations and to dream big for their kids.

LA School Report asked Buller-Ulm about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as her goals for the 2019-20 school year. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why is it important to engage the families of special needs kids in the early grades?

It really makes a big difference to have a partnership with our families, to support our families. As a family member, when you have a family member diagnosed with a disability, it’s daunting, it can be terrifying. You’re wondering, What does this mean for their future? What is it they’re going to be able to do? How satisfying is their life going to be?’ There are so many things that come up, and as a family member of somebody with a disability, I can relate to it on that side, as well as on the teaching side. So I feel like it puts me in a unique position to be able to partner with parents and help them to understand that we don’t need to place limits on our kids. We can have dreams and goals and support them in getting there, and they might not get there on the same timeframe as maybe their typically developing peers are getting there, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to get there. I don’t see any reason to place any limits on our kids and what they’re capable of doing. In fact, I try to partner with parents and encourage them to have high expectations, and to dream big for their kids, and it’s amazing what we can see, and kids just rise to the occasion.

What do you think is most misunderstood about your job, particularly working with special ed kids?

I think that there are some individuals who don’t understand what the kids are capable of, and so they look at it like it’s more of a glorified babysitting job as opposed to actually teaching. Every individual, regardless of whether they’re in special ed or general ed, everybody learns in their own unique way. Some of us maybe have a more unconventional path to learning, and maybe they need more movement in their days in order to be able to have their body be calm and regulated, to be able to learn things that are being taught in the general ed classroom. We just work with each individual to figure out what their needs are, what their unique needs are, and what their special learning pathway is. I think that I’ve heard individuals ask why resources are being wasted, don’t I get bored, and I’m never bored. In fact, the more challenging the situation is, to me, the more inspiring it is. I have a student who came into my classroom, and he was able to sit, but he wasn’t able to crawl. He wasn’t able to walk, he wasn’t talking, he wasn’t even engaging with toys, playing with objects. He was just sitting, and not really reacting to things, and today this child is walking independently on the playground.

Can you share more about your students and the community you serve?

So we’re a Title I school. One hundred percent of our students receive free breakfast and lunch. As far as the program itself, I teach a PALS program. It’s Preschool for All Learners. So we have children who have disabilities. I mean really it’s such a wide range of disabilities, children who have very mild disabilities to children who have very severe disabilities. Some of the kids might have more of a speech and language delay. Some of the kids may have some more very profound disabilities, so it’s really a wide variety. I think one of the things that makes our program so interesting and I love it, I love having such a diverse population of students. I feel like we all learn from each other. One of the things that I really love about our district is that we are really trying to move toward more inclusion, so we’re looking always for opportunities to have our students with special needs working with our students who are typically developing, because having those peer models is so motivating and helpful to our students.

Is there anything that you think your school, the district, or even the state could do differently to better support teachers?

Well, we hear it all the time, funding is always an issue. It’s always a challenge. I can only speak for myself and my classroom. I spend a very significant portion of my salary investing back in my classroom, they need so many different opportunities to be exposed to the different concepts that we’re teaching in multiple ways in order for them to acquire those skills. So I think that continuing to invest in these programs, in these materials, I mean, the materials don’t last forever. So as a teacher, I am constantly purchasing or making things to supplement the learning so that I can maximize these opportunities for our kids. So when it comes to state funding, I just would love to see more of that funding actually hit the classroom itself.

What do you think is the biggest way parents can help teachers?

I think partnering with teachers, but I think communication is huge, and that goes both ways. I think that it’s really important that we are open to our parents, and that we welcome them into our classrooms, and that we truly work as a community. I feel that our campus does a very nice job of really partnering with families. We have a very active parents center, and we have very active parents in our community who participate in all the activities that we have at our school. But just constantly keeping that line of communication open with parents, and making them feel welcome, and helping them to know the value that they bring.

I think that having a student population where we have students who are second language learners, I think sometimes if the teacher and the parents don’t always speak the same language, there can be times where maybe the parent is shying away from communicating as much with the teacher. I think that as a teacher, I have to look for people to help bridge that and communicate with the parents so that they know what’s going on with their child, so that they feel the sense of community that we’re building here on campus in our classroom and in our school as a whole. And just continuing to encourage them to be active on campus, to be a presence with their child.

The other thing is following through. If we tell parents that we’re going to do something that we follow through and we do the things that we say are going to do because that’s what builds trust and builds relationships.

What would you say is one of your proudest accomplishments as a teacher?

My proudest accomplishment so far really is that situation with the little boy that I was sharing with you. I mean practically seeing the light bulb turn on and watching the difference that it made in his life, once we were able to get him moving, everything changed for him. It was a painstaking process of investing every day additional time and trying to make sure that we’re building those muscles because if we don’t have strong muscles, we can’t support our body, and we can’t stand. … I mean, it is really difficult to function in this world when you don’t have mobility, and we knew how important that was for him. So to have invested all of that time and effort, and the trials and errors, and then to watch the child blossom and watch his reaction to his world, and to people, and his excitement to sing songs with friends and know all of the hand movements and clapping and celebrating together. It’s incredible.

What’s your main goal for the new school year?

Well, I have so many. I have a lot of students returning to my classroom. Almost all of my students that I had last year are returning to my classroom, so really getting my kids ready for kindergarten, and I want to see as many of them as possible go into general ed classrooms, and so that’s what I’m working towards. I’m always looking for opportunities to enhance their development, and get them into general ed.

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