Hamblen County Teachers of the Year: From Manley Elementary: Amanda Hill

Amanda Hill, preschool special education teacher, is Manley Elementary’s Teacher of the Year. She is a nine-year educator who declares her passion is for preschool-aged students, ages three through five.

She attended East Tennessee State University and obtained her Bachelor’s Degree in Special Education.

“For students who already have their own challenges and varying needs in special education, early intervention could make or break how successful they feel and are during their school career.”

Hill utilizes two major research-based practices in her preschool classroom to support her students so that they can show growth towards their IEP goals and feel successful at preschool learning activities--visual supports and differentiated instruction.

The use of visual supports is all around adults in our daily lives like to-do lists, daily planners, recipes, or grocery lists. “Research indicates that visual supports help create independence and are specifically beneficial to students with special needs, in particular, children with Autism,” Hill explained. “Visual supports may help special education students by: making abstract concepts more visually concrete, bringing routine, structure, and sequence, reducing anxiety, and to help ease transitions between activities during the school day.”

Hill currently has 11 of 23 students who have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. In addition, 22 of the 23 students exhibit language skills that are below average when compared to same-age peers.

“Our daily use of visual supports throughout the preschool day has allowed for my students to become more successful at following a structured routine, managing behavior, and completing preschool activities,” she said. “Overall, this generates a learning environment where my students can feel at their best and successful while at school.”

She utilizes the concept of differentiated instruction. “This practice creates a safe and supportive learning environment for my special education preschool students.” She might teach and/or create different activities with the use of verbal, visual, and gestural prompts as well as provide hand over hand assistance, if needed.

“One student might need me to help them count objects by a visual prompt (pointing to each object) while another might need to count objects with me using hand over hand assistance,” she explained.

“Differentiation is a way for teachers to bridge the gap between special education students and their regular ed peers.”

The two teaching practices of visual supports and differentiated instruction has resulted in tremendous growth and learning for her preschool special education students.

Their growth can be recognized in many ways including: no longer needing special education services, being able to complete an age appropriate learning activity, or initiating with a peer by saying “hi.”

Research has shown that children who are socially and emotionally healthy tend to “be happier, show greater motivation to learn, have a more positive attitude toward school, more eagerly participate in class activities, and demonstrate higher academic performance than less mentally healthy peers,” Hill noted.

There are many strategies that can be used to promote social-emotional learning in children but one key approach that she uses daily in her classroom is positive discipline strategies.

Making sure that rules and expectations are clear for behavior, consequences are reviewed, and praise and incentives for positive behaviors is implemented is vital towards social-emotional growth.

Her strategies are also shared with families in order to build a stronger school-home connection with parents and to help provide consistency to her students.

Various teacher-made social stories, visual supports, and expectation cards have been sent home in backpacks so that parents can also promote social-emotional skills with their children.

She teaches positive social-emotional skills by reading and discussing children’s books. Books allow students to connect to the characters through their experiences as well as answer open ended questions about feelings and problem-solving skills.

“Children should be taught and given opportunities to practice social-emotional skills, much the same as they are given the chance to practice reading, writing, and math problems,” she said.

“During my teaching career, I have found the value of teaching positive social-emotional skills to build a firm foundation so that my students are able to adapt across a variety of social and academic settings for years to come,” Hill said.

As an educator, Hill has a unique opportunity to help support her students by providing a safe, stable, and nurturing environment in her classroom, as well as, promoting activities and programs throughout our community.

Continuing education expanded her understanding of adverse childhood experiences, brain architecture, and executive functioning.

“As a result, I have been able to lead high quality professional development within the school setting during PLC meetings with fellow preschool teachers, collaborating with other special education teachers in my school, and also partnering with other grade levels K-2 to develop specific strategies to address executive functioning needs of students,” she said.

“I also have been able to promote these strategies throughout the community by teaching parents how to address their child’s needs in their home environment through the use of visual supports, social stories, and schedules,” she added.

In efforts to foster relationships with not only her students but their parents, she participated in multiple outreach programs in the communities around our school including: handing out books to families, blanket/clothing drives for donation to families in need, supporting and participating in a program teaching English to non-English speaking families, and handing out and delivering food to families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is important to me as an educator, that I create an open and trusting relationship with my students and their families, to help promote a positive home-school connection, strengthen economic supports to low-income families, and teach constructive parenting skills and family relationship approaches,” she said.

Raising awareness about adverse childhood experiences can help shift the focus from individual obligation to a community approach, she noted.

“The saying ‘it takes a village’ comes to mind when describing how vital it is that educators, families, and community members partner together so that our growing children can thrive,” Hill said.

Hill loves to go camping with her family including her husband and two children, Kennedy and Asher. “We enjoy, as a family, many outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, and kayaking.”

The Hills attend Pathways Church in Sevierville, where they participate in community outreach by donating to families in need, Angel Tree Christmas boxes, food/clothing boxes to nursing homes, etc., through their church family.