RIVERVIEW - When school lets out for the summer June 7, Nicole Gauthier will finish her first year as a teacher at Summerfield Elementary. She was fresh out of college when she started last August, filled with the energy and enthusiasm of a rookie. Now she has some seasoning.
Gauthier teaches kindergarten and first-grade students, a tough job for anyone new to the profession. But the children in her charge have varying degrees of autism, and that presents additional challenges.
"This year I've been focusing on getting used to being the one making the calls, being the decision-maker," she said. "But having been through that and learned the framework of the job, next year I'll be able to concentrate more on the personal aspects of teaching and enhancing my skills."
Gauthier sees her job a bit differently now.
"I think I've come to appreciate the teachers I had in the past more," she said. "(Teaching) is so more than just teaching lessons. Some of the smallest successes I've had in class are sweetest, like one child who couldn't say when she needed to use the bathroom. Now she signs, is much calmer, and you don't have to guess what she wants."
In the beginning she spent much of her time teaching her students basic skills like washing hands and brushing their teeth or forming a line and walking together to the playground. Throughout the year, she has had to learn to keep them on task - and engaged.
"These children have difficulty focusing so we have to spend so much more time teaching them the same thing," Gauthier said, "We're working on every aspect of their lives, not just academic skills."
Children 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. They need organization and structure in their worlds.
So everything Gauthier does in class needs to provide and reinforce that. She uses lots of pictures and visuals to help them communicate their feelings, wants and needs.
Parent Sonja Cribbs of Riverview, whose 5-year-old son Richard is in Gauthier's class, appreciates the new teacher's efforts.
"She's done a wonderful job with him. He's progressed a lot," Cribbs said. "She focuses on his individual needs and relates to him well."
Her school principal also gives her high marks.
"Overall, Nicole has had a successful first year," said Derrick McLaughlin. "She's done a good job of adapting to her specific group of kids. She's done a good job and I look forward to seeing her progress even further."
McLaughlin added Gauthier's ability to multitask and willingness to try different things were part of that success.
"And she has so much patience," he said.
One of those new things was teaching her kids how to make Rice Krispie treats. Starting with a story and then reviewing the recipe in words and pictures, she took them through each step. When the first batch didn't work out, she quickly started over until each child finally had made a gooey treat.
"It isn't just about teaching them a life skill," she said. "They have to read, count and follow instructions."
At 4-foot-10, Gauthier is barely taller than her students but the diminutive little general has total command in the classroom. And she loves her students.
"I feel like a mother hen whose chicks are leaving," she said, acknowledging she'll soon be sending off her first-graders to second grade in the fall. "But I know they'll be taken good care of by their next teacher.
"I've really grown attached to them," she said, a bit wistfully. "This was my first class."