In 2020, as the world shut down due to the pandemic, ABGs Middle School Hempstead Special Education teacher Grace Dong-Janeo had a huge challenge in front of her.
Being faced with teaching remotely for the first time, Dong-Janeo, a teacher of more than 30 years, quickly realized she’d have to think on her feet. “Not everybody in our district got laptops,” she explains. For the first couple of months, I reached out to them by calling them and their parents, and when one or two got their laptops because the parents purchased them, they didn’t know how to go on because they were never taught how before the pandemic. We’d go back and forth, I’d send a lot of pictures on my phone and take pictures of my screen to show their moms and dads, but another thing was [sometimes the parents] didn’t know English, so I had to Google quickly in Spanish!” For students that didn’t get access to laptops, Dong-Janeo printed out packets of work and mailed them to their homes. She made it work.
“I remember my daughter was recently saying to me, ‘Mommy, you engaged them,’” Dong-Janeo recalls. “I was like, ‘What do you mean by that?’ Because this is already a year-plus. Sometimes you put a hat on — let’s say with Cinco de Mayo I wear a hat — they were paying attention to me, or I had a toy and I put it across the screen and I said, ‘You’ll get bonus points if you see that,’ because I know they’re really seeing on the screen or they’re playing a game behind it,” she says.
Despite the bumps in the road, Dong-Janeo never forgot her belief that “you have to reach students before you can teach them.” And in teaching special education, reaching children is pivotal. “I remember my first year [teaching],” Dong-Janeo says. “It was an eye-opener for me, because I come from a home where you had to make sure to do your homework [right after school], and you couldn’t do anything else. I had that type of upbringing. When I went to work, things were very different.
“It was predominantly a lot of families with single parents. They worked very hard and it’s very hard for them to be home when the kids are home. I noticed that, wait a second, the stuff that I learned at school was not working yet. I realized I have to reach the students before teaching the students. I always kept that in mind. I had to bond with them.”
Dong-Janeo learned quickly to adapt to students with special needs. “I’ll find a way for them to figure it out, or think outside the box. That’s my skill set, I guess — thinking outside the box helped to reach them.”
Over the years, Dong-Janeo has also been the adviser for the school’s National Junior Honor Society, which has given her the opportunity to develop relationships with students outside the special education program. “Some of those kids are doing very well,” she says. “One’s a doctor. I was so glad to have him come back and tell me that.” She has also mentored other teachers, giving them invaluable advice.
“I say, ‘Just put the book down, just reach out because you don’t know because we come from a different family background. Single parents or grandmas taking care of them. Maybe they have limited means, maybe they don’t have supplies.’ What I tell the new teachers is, start small, build the trust.” Whether working with special education students or students who naturally excel academically, Dong-Janeo is steadfast in her “reach before you can teach” motto. “I have been able to work with all students — bilingual students, special ed students, the honor students — so I have reach them.”
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