With her warm smile and gentle approach, teacher Wendy Staschke brings patience, kindness, and understanding to her special needs students at ACES Village School in North Haven, where she started out as an aide over 30 years ago.
On June 8, Wendy was named the ACES 2017 Teacher of the Year, selected among candidates spanning the wide spectrum of ACES (Area Cooperative Education Services) programming, including special education schools and magnet schools.
A Guilford resident since early childhood—her father, the late Dr. Edward Wakeman, MD, was a well-known Guilford pediatrician of 32 years—Wendy and her husband have raised five children in her hometown (the youngest starts high school in the fall). Wendy is also a long-serving member of SARAH Inc.’s board.
Wendy’s educational path toward a life spent helping others began when she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and religion (Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts) and includes her master’s in special education earned from Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU).
“I’ve just always loved the human services field,” says Wendy, who joined ACES as an aide in 1985. “Before I came to ACES, I worked at Perkins School for the Blind as head house parent for a number of years. Growing up, I had summer jobs as a school bus driver and nurse’s aide at Watrous (Nursing Center); so I was always finding things to do in that field.”
Wendy earned her teaching certificate in 1987 and then returned to SCSU to complete her masters.
“By then, I was married and having kids, so I was on the 10-year plan—it took me about 10 years to get my master’s,” says Wendy.
She says she has never wanted to do anything more than teach her students at ACES Village School.
“I can truly and absolutely say I love walking into that classroom every single day,” Wendy says. “One of the reasons I’m so honored to be selected as ACES Teacher of the Year is because I hope I’ll be able to let more people learn what we do at Village School. I think so few people truly understand what we actually do, every day.”
For Wendy’s part, she leads a classroom generally populated with adolescent boys, ages 11 to 14. She’s assisted by a classroom staff of dedicated individual aides and teacher’s assistants, all there to help Wendy support the students and allow them to succeed at their own pace.
“We get the children that, for whatever reason, are sent to us because they haven’t been a good match in their school; who haven’t been successful anywhere else,” Wendy says. “Most of them have come to me with pretty challenging behaviors. But to me, they are all just typical adolescent boys, and I just love the age group. They’re becoming independent, but still need and look for guidance. So when they walk into our classroom, we look for their gifts. We make them feel good about themselves and take pride in what they’re able to do. “
On June 8, Wendy expressed that sentiment when accepting the 2017 ACES Teacher of the Year award at ACES Whitney High School North (Hamden).
“What I had wanted to share with people is just that, while we do teach academics for the kids that are ready to learn; so much of what we teach are just those teachable moments,” says Wendy. “It could be social skills or communications skills or even functional living skills. It’s all the skills they need, the whole package.
That type of education can’t simply be measured with a test. Even though Wendy took part in a pilot program for the new CT Alternative Assessment testing, she says she didn’t see a lot of the input from herself or other educators make it into the new, computer-based tests required by the state.
“I appreciate the need for there to be some sort of standard,” says Wendy. “But when you have eighth-graders learning to recognize numbers on a cell phone, and the (assessment) is asking questions like identify where Pi is on a number line, or determine the volume of a cylinder... for a majority of our students, it is very disrespectful and a waste of their time.” It also eats up a lot of instructional time, too.
“We have almost become classroom managers instead of teachers. That’s very frustrating to me, when what I want to do most is sit across from a student at a lesson,” she says.
Wendy likes to pack her lessons with instructional activities and experiential opportunities.
“I love to do things with my class; like we run a nut-free bakery,” says Wendy. “I send home an order form so parents can put their order for cupcakes for a birthday or special occasion. It gives us an opportunity to do functional things. When a parent tells me that their child loves to come to school, it means to me that I am doing my job right.”
Wendy also makes a point of checking in with her students’ families to give progress updates.
“Something that always strikes me is when I call a parent to give a positive report about their child’s day, and you can tell they’re holding their breath,” says Wendy. “I can’t tell you how many times they say, ‘Nobody has ever called to tell me something good about my son.’ That’s so heartbreaking. Every single child has so many positive things to offer.”
She credits her classroom staff, including several who have worked with her for many years, and the entire Village school community for creating an exceptional educational experience for students.
“I have an amazing staff which I’m grateful for. I truly love my job, and it helps to work with such incredible people,” Wendy says. “At Village School, we really are the village it takes to raise a child, and I’m very happy to be a part of that village.”