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Tampa Tribune (FL) - 9/17/2012
RIVERVIEW, Fla. -- At 4-foot-10 and only 98 pounds, Nicole Gauthier is barely bigger than her students at Summerfield Elementary School.
But the diminutive, first-time teacher seems larger than life in her classroom of exceptional students, all of whom have varying degrees of autism.
Gauthier works nonstop with nine kindergarteners and first-graders, often communicating without words and sometimes physically manipulating their movements. She constantly involves them in learning activities created to meet individual student needs, and even teaches her students to perform basic self-help tasks such as brushing their teeth.
Although she’s only been in the classroom a matter of weeks, she already knows how to keep her students on task by using an egg timer and colorful cue cards with pictures on them. Not a minute goes by unaccounted.
"These kids need organization and structure in their world, so everything we do in class needs to provide that," Gauthier said. "I use lots of pictures and visuals to help them communicate their feelings, wants and needs."
She acknowledges her job’s not for everyone.
"It takes someone with a unique personality to work with children with autism, someone who has an understanding of their needs beyond words," Gauthier said. "You have to be able to look in their eyes and know what they want."
Gauthier, 22, developed that skill by volunteering over six summers during middle school and high school, working with autistic children. Those experiences, in concert with the encouragement of a teacher who told her she had a true talent for working with students, helped shape her path.
Kids with autism -- a bio-neurological developmental disability that usually shows up before age 3 -- typically have difficulty communicating verbally and nonverbally, relating to others and playing. Some exhibit stereotypical behavior, such as arm-flapping, walking on their tiptoes or concentrating on highly repetitive patterns.
There were 1,421 autistic students enrolled in Hillsborough County schools last fall, according to the Florida Department of Education.
"No two children are ever the same," Gauthier said. "But in many ways, they’re like other kids. They just see the world in an entirely different way."
Gauthier was born in Connecticut and moved with her family to Palm City when she was 8. She graduated high school in 2008 and enrolled at Flagler College in St. Augustine; she graduated in April with a dual degree in exceptional student education and elementary education.
She interviewed with three Hillsborough County schools in June. The last was Summerfield Elementary.
"From the moment she started to talk we knew she would be a perfect fit," said Principal Derrick McLaughlin.
Gauthier was a complete package, with "batteries included," he said.
"There was no assembly required. She was ready to go."
College didn’t prepare Gauthier for all of what she’d be dealing with as a new teacher, though -- such as 10-hour workdays or mounds of required paper work.
"I didn’t realize how much flexibility I would need in planning my day and managing my time," Gauthier said. "I’ve already learned when things don’t go as you expect, you simply have to persevere."
Still, she’s where she wants to be.
"When you love what you do, it’s never work," Gauthier said.
She doesn’t have to go it alone, though.
Thanks to a $100-million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2009, the school district is providing Gauthier and other new teachers with mentors. Gauthier’s mentor will meet with her at least once a week during her first two years to offer support and guidance.
She also works with Robin Remson, an experienced teacher and team leader who has worked extensively with autistic children. Remson visits her classroom daily, providing advice, suggestions and feedback.
"Her heart is with these children, and that’s what we look for," said Remson. "You can see her passion in everything she’s doing in the classroom. A lot of teaching is on-the-job training, but for her it is innate."
Two teacher’s aides offer additional support, by enabling Gauthier to manage a classroom of very active children who require lots of hands-on attention.
"I couldn’t do this without them," Gauthier said. "They are my right and left hands."
Early into her career, Gauthier knows she has found her calling.
"It’s the little intangible things that make the job so worthwhile. A paraprofessional once told me working with a child with autism is like watching your own child take its first steps over and over.
"I wouldn’t trade that for the world," she said. "My job is to light the bulb and help it shine even brighter."