When Lindsey Cairney graduated from Georgia Southern University in 2009, being a special education teacher was not in her plans. A love for science and a degree in middle grades education in hand, she was ready to settle into a general education classroom career.
However, with the economy making area teaching jobs scarce, she accepted a position at Langston Chapel Elementary School as a dedicated paraprofessional for a severe and profound special education student instead. That choice led unexpectedly to her true calling.
“I fell into it, but I love it,” said Cairney, who is now the lead teacher for a severe and profound class at Mattie Lively Elementary School. “Sometimes what you never think you’d try or do, ends up being what you love.”
Cairney and her students will participate today in Bulloch County's Fall Special Olympics, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Mill Creek Park.
MLES Principal Jennifer Quick said she is impressed to see skills in such a young teacher.
“Her abilities are above any expectations that I could imagine.”
Her co-workers see the dedication as well. After only one year at Mattie Lively, her co-workers nominated her as a candidate for their school’s teacher of the year.
“I was selected runner-up, but it meant a great deal to me,” Cairney said. “The staff here is so amazing and supportive.”
Cairney needed that encouragement and support after a mentally and emotionally challenging first year. The student with whom she was originally paired with at Langston Chapel, and who transferred with her to Mattie Lively, passed away unexpectedly just after the school year began in August.
“I’ve never lost anyone in my life,” said Cairney. “It was tough.”
Cairney had enjoyed a normal school day on a Friday only to receive a pre-dawn call over the weekend from the student’s mother of his failing condition. Cairney drove to the hospital in Augusta to be by his side and comfort the family.
“I was there at the end,” she said. “He was one of my most verbal students, so he is truly missed.”
Afterwards she received a note from the mother expressing her gratitude.
“She told me I inspired her son,” Cairney said.
Cairney was warned by veteran teachers that the loss of a student was a possibility in special education.
“I love special education though,” she said. “My students are like my children.”
It’s evident that they feel the same. At the end of that first year she received cards from each of her parents, all stating a common theme, “We’re so glad you’re here.”
“She always has the best interest of her students’ needs at heart,” Quick said.
Cairney said she uses creativity, quick-thinking and classroom management skills to help teach her six students to communicate and be as independent as possible.
“What each is capable of is different, so I find what it takes to help them be more functional,” Cairney said. “We’re teaching one student sign language, another how to use picture exchange cards, and one student, whom we thought couldn’t talk, is now repeating words, counting to 15 and knows all his colors.”
Cairney understands that being able to communicate is essential to providing them with a level of independence and pride now and for their future after school.
“I appreciate MLES’s special ed. atmosphere,” she said. “Teachers encourage their students to speak and wave to my kids. We have PE, music, and art with general education students, and they’re genuinely concerned if one of my students is absent.”
“Her enthusiasm and excitement for teaching are endless,” Quick said.