By Dawn Thomas, President of SESI

As Teacher and Staff Appreciation Week ends, I wanted to highlight a certain segment within the K-12 education sector that’s close to my heart, the exceptional professionals devoted to the world of special and alternative education. These compassionate educators work tirelessly to unlock the potential of each unique student, which has become more important as the number of students receiving special and alternative education has grown over the past decade.   

During this important week, I’ve reflected more than usual on what I’ve learned during my first year as president of Specialized Education Services, Inc. (SESI), a provider of education services for K-12 students who require additional educational and positive behavioral supports to overcome challenges that impede success in a traditional school setting.  

As the daughter of a now retired Chicago Public Schools special ed teacher, I grew up witnessing firsthand the tremendous impact educators have on the lives of their students. In my current role, every day – beyond the academic year – I see teachers rise to the challenge of meeting each child’s unique needs with unwavering commitment and enthusiasm. Their passion for helping students grow and thrive is evident in every classroom, therapy session and special activity. 

I have the privilege of visiting our programs and seeing first-hand the impact educators can make. From the South Side, Peoria and Mount Prospect to Philadelphia, Maryland and northern California, with each stop I gain a deeper understanding of the critical work of special and alt-ed educators and their support staff. 

Our schools serve students with diverse academic, behavioral and social-emotional learning needs. In fact, with more than 2,800 educators and staff members at almost 200 private day schools and in-district classrooms for students, SESI is one of the largest employers of teachers nationwide. Our dedicated staff provide students with the support, instruction, and other tools necessary to achieve success and enjoy rewarding futures, just like mainstream students. In honor of Teacher and Staff Appreciation Week, I would like to express my gratitude to the individuals whose work with these extraordinary students is in many ways a calling. 

These educators understand the importance of looking beyond the surface, seeing the potential in every child, and fostering their talents. They develop and implement innovative teaching strategies that holistically empower students to navigate through their challenges, celebrate their achievements and most importantly, believe in themselves. 

In addition to their pedagogical expertise, special education and alt-ed teachers and staff demonstrate incredible patience, empathy, and adaptability. They recognize that each student’s journey is distinct and often fraught with obstacles. They work tirelessly to create safe, supportive environments where students can overcome barriers, develop resilience and gain confidence in their abilities. Like my mother, the teacher that raised me, the teachers I interact with today share a relentless commitment to delivering positive outcomes for their students.  

The impact of our educators goes far beyond the academic realm. They form strong bonds with students, serving as mentors, advocates, and confidants. They inspire trust and hope, often becoming lifelines for students who may feel isolated or misunderstood. It is not uncommon for special education and alt-ed teachers to go beyond the call of duty, offering support and encouragement long after the school day has ended.  

In Englewood, South Shore and Roseland, I have met students from some of the most historically disinvested neighborhoods in Chicago, including many who shared their past traumas with me. As they led me around their school, their faces lit up as they detailed how certain teachers and staff members made a difference in their lives and helped renew their sense of purpose. I’ve also had the powerful experience of seeing a non-verbal student make progress with language development, thanks to the dedication of their teacher and therapists.  

Teachers, alongside paraprofessionals, social workers, therapists, counselors and administrators, play a crucial role in ensuring students receive the comprehensive support they need to flourish both in and outside the classroom. At SESI, we understand the importance of not only supporting students in their current learning environment but also preparing them for a successful transition back to their home schools, when possible. These dedicated team members empower students to overcome challenges and thrive in school and beyond, ensuring a lifetime of accomplishment and personal growth. 

As we celebrate Teacher and Staff Appreciation Week, join me in extending gratitude to these dedicated professionals. They may not make headlines or receive accolades as frequently as they deserve, but their impact on the lives of their students is immeasurable.  

To all the special education and alternative education teachers and support staff: Thank you. Your dedication, expertise and compassion are changing lives. The true measure of an educator’s success lies not in grand accolades or widespread recognition, but in the indelible impact they make, one student at a time, guiding them towards a brighter future.