When Denise Baumbach first decided to become a teacher, her educator parents warned her that the challenges of teaching could feel more overwhelming than the rewards. But as an autistic support teacher at Solis-Cohen Elementary School, where her dad Rich also teaches, she focuses on the gains her students have made—and why that represents real success.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into teaching.
Way back, when I was in college, I was going to be an accountant. Both of my parents are teachers, and I saw how hard they worked; I wasn’t going to do that. But when I got into accounting, it felt so impersonal. I couldn’t imagine myself sitting in a cubicle with numbers all day. That’s totally not my personality.
So, against my parents’ wishes, I decided I was going to be a teacher. They told me, “Teaching is rewarding, but it will be the hardest thing you’ll ever do.” But I went ahead and took an education class anyway, and that’s when I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to help kids.
I love to learn, so my hope is to instill that in somebody else. If I can reach just one person, that’s such a good feeling. Being like, “Hey. Look how neat this is. We’ll get this.” And when they say “Awesome!” and get it—it’s so cool to see those movements in little people and even adults. I like being able to do that every day.
Have your parents come around to your decision?
I love teaching, and I think my parents see how I’m so fulfilled by it. Even though they were a little ehh about it at first, they get that it was the right choice for me. And they’re really lifelong learners themselves—they were both general ed classroom teachers until about six or seven years ago, when they went into teaching English as a second language. My parents do everything together, including going grocery shopping and driving to work, so every time they’ve gone back to school to get a master’s or a certification or something, they’ve gotten it together.
My dad actually teaches at my school, and my mom works just up the street at J. Hampton Moore Elementary School. I never had them as teachers, though—they always taught public school and my brother and I went to Catholic school, so there was never that chance for interaction. Probably for the better!
Having gone through private school as a student, why did you decide to follow your parents into public education?
Some of the kids who come to public school come because they might not have the resources to go to a private school. But just because you don’t have the resources doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a good, sound education. And in my field, there are so many more opportunities to reach the special ed population in a public school setting than there are in a private one.
Just because you don’t have the resources doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a good, sound education.
There are private schools that won’t accept students once they know they’ve been diagnosed with autism. To me, that’s not right. Just because you have a diagnosis or a label doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to be educated. Sometimes, in those settings, it’s almost like they’re saying, “Well, we don’t want to deal with that.” That’s just not fair.
It’s the same thing with race, religion, or anything else. What does it matter? It doesn’t matter to me; I don’t think it should matter to anybody, really. Just accept people as they come.
Why did you decide to go into special ed?
The professor of one of my undergrad courses spent her entire career as a special educator, and she was so passionate about special education. When she told us stories, she got emotional about kids she’d had 20 or 30 years ago. That’s the kind of connection I wanted.
And in special ed, we work with a smaller population of kids. We have four kids coming in this year who are in kindergarten, so I can potentially have them from ages five through eight. That’s enough time to build a relationship with them: You know the family, you become connected and intertwined, and you’re able to see the growth. Special ed gives me an opportunity to touch somebody for a longer period of time.
For your students, how important is that kind of consistency from year to year?
Very. For my students, consistency is being able to know what they’ll see, who will be in the classroom, the routine. That’s essential for everybody, but it’s especially important for kids who have trouble with transitions or anything new. There’s also the sensory aspect—they need a lot of different inputs and a lot of different ways to output what’s going on. We try to provide structure, set up expectations and norms, and let them know they’re safe.
A few years ago, we had a little boy in kindergarten who was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, so he went to autistic support. And now, after a year with consistent routines and expectations, he’s able to function in a typical classroom. That’s huge. He goes in for academics and comes back to me for social skills, but he was unable to be included at at all before. I can only see growth for him, to the point where maybe he won’t even need us at the end of the year. And that would be ideal.
Consistency is essential for everybody, but it’s especially important for kids who have trouble with transitions or anything new.
Right. So the hope for students is that they can go on to be independent.
We want functional, independent kids, and that might not look the same for every kid. Maybe being functioning and independent means they need a signal to know what to do next, or maybe it means they know what expectations are. There’s a saying that goes “If you’ve met one kid with autism, you’ve met one kid with autism.” You want each of them to be successful, but how you get to successful might be different.
What it looks like at the end is different for everybody, too. Sometimes, with a special ed label or diagnosis, people will think, “Oh, they can’t.” And I think that’s wrong, because they can. It’s just that their “can” may be different from yours or mine. It’s like with my own kids: All I want is for them to one day be successful. What that looks like might be different for my eight-year-old, my four-year-old, and my ten-month-old, and it’s the same with my kids in my classroom. They can do it, and they will do it. They’ll just get there in their own unique way.
What will a day in your classroom look like this year?
I can guarantee right now that every day will be different. Like with any class, waking up on the wrong side of bed or not getting enough sleep might throw you off your game. For my guys, little things that might upset you for a second might upset them for the entire day, so that will be a challenge in and of itself. But we’re going to be spending a lot of time together. We’re going to eat breakfast together, we’re going to eat lunch together, we have socialized recess—it’s all about teaching kids how to coexist.
Everything’s based on their IEPs, so we give them instruction based on their individual goals. Two kids might need work in functional academics while another three kids might need work in interpersonal communication, so we’ll set up rotations in the classroom and rotate to different centers. That’s why we have so many adults in the room; six of us are always there, and other people come in from outside agencies as well.
A lot of people, when they think of teaching, think of the traditional set-up: teachers in the front, students in rows. That’s definitely not true for your classroom.
Our school wants every classroom to be student-centered—where kids lead the way, show what they want to learn, and use their knowledge to grow. This year, we were really lucky to get a grant from the Philadelphia Writing Project to do kid writing, which allows the kids to write in their own way and then learn the skills to write how you and I would recognize it. It’s so much more developmentally appropriate than expecting a kid to come into school knowing how to write. I’m looking forward to it.
Even in the regular classrooms, kids don’t have desks like we used to. Instead, they sit at a table. In the lower grades, they’re on the floor reading a book or getting into all kinds of stuff. It’s not like “Sit down, here’s your work, do it quietly. I’ll see you in fifteen minutes.”
I think it’s because kids don’t really work that way, especially the little ones.
I went to a training yesterday where the instructor pointed that out. He said, “We expect our kids to walk down the hallway, one behind the other, eyes forward, mouth shut. But do teachers walk like that?” No way. All day long, kids see adults walking next to each other, laughing and talking. Like, let’s be practical.
Technology gives kids instant feedback, and doing things their own way gives them some of that input, too. When they’re with their peers, they don’t have to sit by themselves; they can work with a friend. Sure, we still have time set aside for independent working, but it feels different. It’s all about teaching them, letting them feel like they know what they’re doing, and using that to empower them.
Adults are sometimes afraid of what kids will do when they don’t have rules, but they often end up exceeding our expectations when we just let them run with it.
It’s almost like you have to give up power to get what you want out of them. Kids are very capable, and they’re able to do really good things—just watch them fly with their imagination. I think teachers have to give up the reins a little bit, and that’s scary for a lot of people. “You mean, you want me to let these little children control my classroom?” But they’ll get it together a lot quicker than if you just tell them to get it done.
How do you get your students’ families involved so you have that consistency between the classroom and the home?
We do a classroom newsletter, and we try to make opportunities for the parents to come in. This year, autistic support is going to do cooking in the classroom, so parents will come in to help with simple recipes. We also participate in the healthy food initiative through The Food Trust, which provides fruits and vegetables that kids might not have been exposed to for whatever reason—it’s not regional, they don’t have the resources, something else.
That sounds neat. How did you get involved with that?
Our school was selected for the initiative and elected to do it in kindergarten last year. It was pretty successful: a lot of parents came out for the activities, and the kids would at least try all sorts of different fruits and vegetables. Fennel. Turnips. I mean, I’m an adult person, and when I saw a rhubarb, I was like, “What is this?” We had a lesson about how to politely spit out your food. I mean, rhubarb is sour. I had no idea. It looks like a piece of purple celery to me.
So when I found out that I was moving to autistic support, I asked The Food Trust if they would include us, too. I think it’s really important for kids with autism who have sensory issues or textural issues to try different foods. The parents can get involved with class activities, and they get to take home the bags of fruits and vegetables.
But you also reach out to them pretty regularly when they’re not in the classroom.
That’s when I use Remind. It’s been so cool to be able to text pictures to the parents of what we’re doing, or let them know about a school event that’s coming up. I’ve found it’s a lot easier to get somebody on their phone in a text than to call or to write a note; maybe they’re busy, or maybe they’re working late. But everybody’s glued to their phone, one hundred percent of the day.
So this isn’t something we usually hear: You learned about Remind from your mom.
Go figure, right? My mom’s been teaching for over 30 years; not to be mean, but she’s pretty technologically disadvantaged. But when I first started teaching, she was like, “Hey, some of the teachers at my school use this app. Maybe you can reach your parents this way.” And it’s been awesome.
Now, our principal is trying to get everybody on board. Every time we’re in a PD, she’ll say, “Sign up for Remind, right?” and point to me, and I’ll be like, “Yup. Sign up for it, it’s great, if you need help, let me know.” But I think some people are afraid of technology, and others get stuck in their ways.
For me, Remind is a tool. It’s just another way to make my life easier, so why wouldn’t I use it? It’s not scary or a hassle: your phone’s in your pocket, you literally have an Apple Watch on your wrist, let’s go. If you can text, you can use it. That’s the long and short of it.
Since your teaching is really individualized, do you send home more class announcements or individual messages?
I’ll send home a group announcement about something that’s coming up for the class, like picture day or field trip money that’s due. But I can also text a parent, “We had a great day today” or “We had a rough day.” And in a school with a large English language learner population like ours, it’s the easiest way to say, “Hey, this happened,” since Remind translates messages for you.
I can text a parent, “We had a great day today” or "We had a rough day.” Either way, I say, “Hey, this happened.”
Do a lot of the parents text you back?
They do. My own children are in a school that doesn’t use Remind, and I wish they would. Sometimes I’ll come home and ask my daughter what she did in school, and she’ll say, “Nothing.”
What I like to do is send something like, “Today, we learned about rabbits. Ask your kid about rabbits.” And the kids open up. Some of my kids this year have limited communication—limited language or no language at all—so it’s a good way to start that conversation and keep things constant.
And now the kids know that their teacher talks to their parents. This comes in handy when there’s a behavioral issue, but it also shows them that everybody’s working together. Let’s do more communicating. Don’t be afraid to talk to me. We’re going to do this, through the good and the bad.
How frequently do you deal with behavioral issues in your class?
I had a rough class last year. Really rough. I had one student in particular who was very aggressive, and I also had 30 other kids to nurture and teach—I struggled a lot with that, how to do my job but also help this kid. He actually has a special placement now because he has a diagnosis we can’t service here, but I think about him all the time.
And I still think about all those other kids who probably lost out on a lot of instructional time, a lot of my attention, a lot of my love, because I was focused on keeping everyone safe. I felt very defeated a lot of days; I would go home and tell my husband, “I don’t know what to do.”
On top of that, I have my own kids I need to be “on” for, and that was a challenge. The way I see it, your job as a teacher is to love these kids like your own, so you give all day from 8:30 until 3:00, and then you go home to your own kids and you have to give to them, too. That can be so tough to balance.
What do you do to make time for yourself and stay grounded?
I find a lot of joy in my own children, so that’s good—it makes me want go home to them! But in my first year of teaching, I was having a really hard time separating work and home.
My mom actually gave me some advice that somebody else had given her: Before you walk in your house, leave your school day behind. Just touch something outside and leave it there. So now, I make it a point to touch the bricks in the back so I can be like, “Okay, I’m here with my family.” Because if I’m just drained all the time, how is that fair to my kids? To my husband? To me?
A lot of teachers bring school stuff home, whatever it may be. Sometimes bringing home paperwork is inevitable, but separating emotionally can be really tough as well. Now that I kind of have it down, I know that when I walk in the classroom, I leave my home life at home; I’m there to be a teacher. When I get home, I’m there to be a mom and a wife.
Before you walk in your house, leave your school day behind. Just touch something outside and leave it there.
And what do you enjoy most about your time in the classroom?
I love the lightbulb moments. That’s what brings me the most joy about my job, even when I have a rough day that feels like it’s too much or too hard. Just remembering, “I helped him do this” or “He really got this concept today”—that’s what makes me come back, and that’s what keeps me in the game.
Even though you can’t reach a hundred percent of your kids every second of the day, you’re impacting them in some way. If you have kids who come in knowing nothing at the beginning of the year and they leave with even some knowledge, you’ve made a difference. That’s what drives me—knowing that maybe a kid didn’t get to goal, but he got halfway there. That’s a gain. That’s growth. That’s success.
Interview by Sarah Dougherty, a former high school English and special education teacher who's passionate about increasing equity in education. Photography by Patrick Michael Chin.