Educator of the Year Helps Students with Disabilities Gain Unmatched Experiences

James M. Loy, Miami University

Students with disabilities often need a variety of extra support. But they don’t always need more accessibility, or more help with homework, or even special treatment of any kind.

Sometimes what they really need is confidence. Which, of course, is something everyone needs.

“Confidence is key,” says Evan Theobald. “My job is to help kids become successful, whatever that looks like for them. Empowering them to have the confidence they need, socially, mentally, emotionally. I try to focus on the whole child, and my role is to meet them where they are to help them navigate the 21st century.”

Productive, responsible citizens

Theobald is a special education teacher and transition specialist at Jackson Senior High in Jackson, MO, where he was just named Educator of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce.Evan Theobald Educator of the Year

After earning a degree in inclusive special education from Miami University, Theobald quickly assumed several roles throughout Jackson. Now in his third year, he helps 9-12 grade students with disabilities gain the hard and soft skills they’ll need to live independently after graduation.

He teaches students about basic household management and how to balance a budget, as well as a variety of social and communication skills. And he teaches special ed driver's education. And he’s a track coach. “So, many hats,” he says.

He’s also the coordinator for the school’s innovative Work Program, which has begun to attract the attention of several other regional schools that often visit Jackson to observe the program in action.

The Work Program allows students with disabilities to get involved with local businesses, and Theobald serves as a community liaison. He connects these establishments with his students, who, once onboard, learn the same kinds of skills and receive the same training that everyone needs to land and maintain a job.

“They're competing with everybody else,” says Theobald. So his goal is to develop productive and responsible citizens who can contribute to society in any way they can. And for a few hours every weekday, they gain hands-on experience at the local hospital, the civic center, an area hardware store, and several fast-food restaurants.

Evan Theobald being announced as winner“Hopefully this style of education becomes the norm for districts all across America,” Theobald says. “The classroom is good. Certainly, I can teach them a lot of things. But then you get them out there in the community, where they're being taxable professionals and in the profession itself, there's just so much benefit to that. That authentic real-life exposure is just unmatched.”

Pushing past limitations

Theobald has already helped dozens of students get hired on as regular employees, which is an accomplishment that may have once seemed out of reach for some.

“A large part of that is due to the confidence,” Theobald says. “People talk down to them, or they talk in a certain way because expectations are a little different. But I'm a coach as well, and that comes out. I treat them just like everybody else and they respond well to that. It is a shocker initially, I think, when they find out I'm not going to accommodate every single one of their needs, and be a crutch for them. So I help them pull back from things they've needed in the past. Then they build that confidence, and they realize, wow, I can actually do this.”

Theobald wants students to realize what they are truly capable of achieving. And his ability to inspire this level of personal growth can be traced back to his own professional development as a teacher.

“Miami University did a good job preparing me with the ins and outs,” he says. “They gave me a good understanding of what it's going to require in terms of knowledge. So college prepares you. But there's nothing like that first year when you realize there is so much more to teaching.”

For Theobald, it was about discovering first-hand just how impactful and rewarding connecting with students can be.

“Relationships are just huge,” he says. “Understanding what these students are going through gives you a whole new purpose behind how you approach it.”

“They are all unique in their own ways,” he continues. “But that's what I love. It takes a while to get to know them. But when I do, it's outstanding. That's certainly a highlight for me. It's really cool to see the students develop, and in those moments when you see your impact, just knowing how incredible that is.”