With summer winding down, we're officially approaching back-to-school season.
TODAY spoke to Erin Sweet, a special education teacher for kindergarten and first grade at Goodnow Brothers Elementary School in Marlborough, Massachusetts, who has been going above and beyond for her students all year long.
'It's about how you make people feel'
Sweet knew she wanted to be a special education teacher ever since she was a child. She used to collect school supplies as a kid and play teacher at home with her family. She would even give her mother pretend homework to complete.
Sweet said that her attitude toward teaching has been ingrained in her since a young age. “My mom always emphasized, growing up, it's not about being the smartest person in the room. It's about how you make people feel," she told TODAY. "That's what I really strive for with my students.”
The school's principal, Amy Mulkerin, told TODAY that Sweet is incredibly dedicated to being the best teacher she can be. “She just puts all of herself into the work that she does with kids," Mulkerin said. "She's really invested in the kids.”
Last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, Goodnow Brothers Elementary School had a hybrid model of learning for their students. Sweet acknowledged there were pros and cons to this period. One pro? Using technology to help many of her students.
“It levels the playing field," she explained. "So for students that might need a little bit more support, like they need text read aloud to them, I'm able to embed those natural accommodations into their work that way.”
But as we all know, the past year has been incredibly tough on students, teachers and parents. She feels like remote learning has taken a toll on the kids' social and emotional learning.
Sweet said that her school has noticed a lot more students with emotional dysregulation, which is "the inability to manage the intensity and duration of negative emotions such as fear, sadness or anger," according to PsychCentral. For example, many kids were acting out or withdrawn during the pandemic. She spent the year finding different ways to support her students who were struggling.
As hard as the past year has been, Sweet still loves her job. “I tell my bosses every single day, the day I do not like my job is the day that I quit because teaching is hard, but it's the best job ever," she said.
Hundreds of dollars of items
For this upcoming year, Sweet is most excited to be back in the classroom with her kids in a more normal environment than last year. Because she teaches kindergarten and first grade, social skills are an incredibly important part of the students' education plan because she believes they set them up for the rest of their lives.
“In life with your jobs, it doesn't really matter what grades you got on your report card. It matters how you interact with people," she stressed.
Although the COVID-19 protocols for the upcoming year are still unknown, Sweet is hopeful that this year the kids will be able to interact more with their peers and get more time to play together outside.
Sweet is on summer break still, but she’s prepping for the new school year, which begins at the end of August. Like many teachers, she regularly buys school supplies out of her own pocket to stock up her classroom. The supplies she gets for her class aren’t just a few packs of markers and crayons — often, the kids need much more, like snacks, books, outdoor toys and sensory activities. She said she has hundreds of dollars of items on her to-buy lists for the upcoming school year.
One essential item the students needed last year: headphones. She said all the kids needed them, and many regularly broke several sets. Sweet would purchase replacement headphones herself.
She is hoping that her school can get more sensory paths — a type of visual, guided, interactive tool used in hallways — to help the students regulate their emotions. “Instead of a kid going for a walk or something, they would actually go and do these specific movements that are scientifically shown to help regulate kids," she explained.
After TODAY talked to Sweet about the upcoming school year, there was a special surprise planned for her. TODAY sent her a box full of school supplies provided from our sponsor Amazon to help her get ready for the new school year.
Sponsored by Amazon
That wasn't the only surprise in store for her! As part of the Clear the List campaign, our sponsor Amazon provided her school with $5,000 to get everything her students need for the new school year.
As soon as TODAY told her about the surprise, she immediately started crying.
“Oh my, I am so incredibly thankful," she gushed. "Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“I'm so glad that the kids get what they deserve," she continued. "They've had it the hardest, and I'm just so appreciative and so thankful. We're going to get some amazing things that the kids will just be happy and smiling about."
"Oh my God, I can't believe it's real, it's real!”