Roderica Gaither Simmons ’03’s first foray into special education was simply an attempt to solve the puzzle that was Mason.
A child who attended the after-school program she ran in Charlotte, Mason was on the autism spectrum, and, although clearly a bright boy, he acted out in particular ways. He would get frustrated and lash out if his routine was altered. His blindness to the nuances of certain social situations caused him to become aggressive toward his teachers and peers. Often, he would simply run away from a vexing situation, taking refuge in the playground when he was supposed to be in class.
Simmons sat down with Mason’s teachers and discussed ways they could understand him better and mitigate his behavior. They learned his likes and dislikes, and they figured out what might trigger outbursts so they could head the behavior off at the pass. They came up with a plan for calming him down if there was a volatile situation, and they strove to better help him process the situation afterward.
“We just came up with an intervention plan and ran those interventions and turned it around,” Simmons says.
Devising creative solutions for Mason and children like him sparked something in Simmons, a history major at Wingate who had taught social studies for a couple of years but didn’t have any special training to support the Masons of the world. “I was trained by Google,” she says with a laugh.
“I adored this child,” Simmons says. “We had a really good relationship. I said, ‘I’m going to learn everything I can about autism and children with disabilities.’ I did, and I said, ‘I think this is it. I think this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’”
Now dean of students at Devonshire Elementary in east Charlotte, Simmons is on the path toward becoming a principal one day, leading (and, she stresses, learning from) all types of kids, not just those, like Mason, who might need extra attention. But students with disabilities will always hold a special place in her heart.
It took a little while to come to the realization that education was her calling. Entering college, Simmons wanted to soak in history, a subject she grew to love because of her 11th-grade history teacher at Davie County High, Jeremy Byrd. “He was amazing,” she says. “He was absolutely phenomenal.”
Simmons chose Wingate over UNC Chapel Hill after visiting each campus. If Simmons were Goldilocks, UNC was like Papa Bear’s chair. “I remember saying to my parents, ‘This is too big. I cannot handle this,’” she says. The campus seemed huge, and the number of people overwhelmed her. “I came from Davie County, where we had 17 kids in every class,” she says. Wingate felt like home, and it gave her a welcomed challenge.
“The classes were hard enough that you knew you were going to be challenged but not so hard initially that you felt like you were just a number and were going to fail out,” Simmons says. “Nothing was as hard as religion classes. Holy moly! I thought I knew the Bible, but apparently I did not.”
The first class she took with English professor Dr. Beverly Christopher was also a not-in-Kansas-anymore moment. “I turned in my first paper, and I thought it was wonderful,” Simmons says. “She gave it back to me and it was covered in red. I was like, ‘Oh no!’ She had good feedback on it. She turned me into a good writer.
“I went to her after class, as a higher-performing kid all through K12, and I said, ‘This was really that bad? She said, ‘Well, that is not the word that I would use.’ She actually sat down with me and went over the paper and explained, ‘Here is what I’m looking for. Here is where you could have expanded.’ I wouldn’t have gotten that at Chapel Hill.”
Simmons signed up for any Christopher-taught class she could, but history was her first love (especially the plight of women in Latin America). She initially wanted to work in a museum or become an anthropologist, but while working at a daycare the summer before her senior year, she had an epiphany. “I think I’d rather work with little kids,” she told herself.
By then it was too late to switch her major to education, but Simmons forged ahead, using “lateral entry” to become a social-studies teacher in Iredell County. She got married and lived in her home county for a couple of years, but living and working in Charlotte had always appealed to her, and she had ambitions in education. “I knew that as a teacher, a bigger school district was going to have more opportunities for me,” she says.
‘Change-agent for kids’
Figuring out how to help Mason help himself was rewarding for Simmons, who went on to earn a master’s in special education and teaching. She worked in elementary and high schools until CMS asked her to move to the Central Office in 2017. There, acting as something like a consultant, she worked with a cluster of schools, being called in to help untangle especially difficult knots.
Simmons has worked with students with a wide variety of needs over the years, from those who have mild-to-moderate disabilities but remain in traditional learning environments to students with more-severe learning needs.
“The hard thing with students who have severe and profound disabilities is that the changes are slow to come, the progress is slow to come,” Simmons says, “and by nature as teachers, no matter what your specialty area is, you want it to happen, and you want it to happen at your pace. One of the things you learn with special ed is that, whether they have profound disabilities or mild-to-moderate, progress is theirs, and we don’t necessarily define the progress. Our job as educators is to provide the access, set the parameters and give really, really good instruction. But progress is not one-size-fits-all.”
Teaching at any level presents puzzles to be solved – often 25 of them at a time. Each student is an individual with their own personality, strengths and weaknesses. Simmons still enjoys the challenge of figuring those puzzles out.
In October she left Central Office for Devonshire. She missed the day-to-day interaction with children, seeing their incremental progress. She missed “kiddie hugs” and making a difference at a personal level. Walking the halls of Devonshire, she seems in her element, quick with a laugh but someone whose word the kids respect (as dean of students, Simmons supports social-emotional learning and handles discipline).
“I’ve always seen educators as change-agents for kids,” she says. “I’ve always believed that strong teachers and good teaching can change the outcome for kids, even when I was younger, because Mr. Byrd changed it for me.
“That was really what the pull of education was. And I have always liked kids, in general, the innocence of children. They’re kind of like clay, and you can just mold them.”
At the very least, she can create a better environment for them to learn in.