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APPRECIATION BEYOND ONE WEEK: Autism Academy Sets New Standard for Teacher Morale

By Anthony KaDarrell Thigpen

AUTISM ACADEMY – Teachers and principals seldom get the accolades and appreciation most agree they deserve, but at the Autism Academy, a school for children with autism, employees sing to a different tune.

This school for autism has a trademark of high morale that transfers from administrators to teachers to students.

“Five, four, three, two, one, are we ready,” echoed the voice of K-2 teacher Taylor Bates. “Great job, thank you so much.”

These are just a couple of ways she provides students with verbal support boosting self-esteem with positive affirmations.

Bates’ classroom offers a sense of serenity with warm lighting and soft music to set the perfect tone for students challenged with light and noise sensitivity.

Most importantly, like all Autism Academy teachers, Bates is patient and has a high tolerance that makes learning possible in her moderate class.

“My teaching style has a lot to do with the way I was raised,” she said. “My mom has been a kindergarten teacher for 30 years.”

Her family has more than 10 educators.

As an 18-year-old volunteer tutor, she worked with a nonverbal student with autism who started speaking within a year.

“I know that’s not typical,” Bates said. “But it made me feel like anything is possible.”

That experience inspired her to earn a bachelor’s degree in special education from the University of Illinois.

Upon relocating to Arizona, she brought her experience from Jefferson Middle School in Champaign, Illinois to the Autism Academy in Gilbert, AZ.

For three years, her powerful impact has been celebrated by parents and administration.

Next year, she hopes to open a student store similar to a concept she created at her previous school.

Soon, Gator Bucks will be used to purchase things such as snacks and school supplies.

Teachers at the Autism Academy say it’s easier to do their job in an environment where they feel supported.

“As a result of being a child first environment, we can easily get things for our kids,” said K-3 teacher Haley Palmer. “I have a high needs class and they are all nonverbal.”

Palmer has a dual certification in early childhood and special education K-8.

She uses hand-held devices, visuals, and verbal reminders to help students communicate.

Educating children with autism requires special resources like lamination sheets, unique curriculums, and ball grips that enable some students to write their names, she explained.

“We feel more supported in this school and that helps with teacher retention,” Palmer said. “And that’s important with our kids because consistency is key.”

In such an intense environment where teachers usually get burned-out, the administration at the Autism Academy sees value in great teachers and celebrates their hard work year-round. 

Palmer said, “They listen to our needs and help us to be successful.”

That’s teacher appreciation.

During Teacher Appreciation Week, principal Derrick Jamerson and the Parent Partnership Program teamed up to add a twist by treating teachers to various catered lunches.

However, teacher appreciation didn’t start or end that week.

According to Palmer, her initial employment interview was a conversation, not an interrogation.

She added, classroom observations are helpful, not intimidating, and the principal actually cares about his staff, he’s not just going through the motions.

Parents agree.

Parents, teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators at the Autism Academy work together in harmony with one goal – putting kids first at this school for autism.


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