Peabody teacher shows love for special ed students
By Ginger Spickler
When I arrive for our interview late on a Friday afternoon, Peabody Elementary’s lead special education teacher, Kemberly Edwards, is in her classroom poring excitedly over some new materials she’s just received.
A number of her students have moved beyond the basic reading materials they started the year with, so Ms. Edwards cornered one of the higher-ups in her department at a district-wide meeting and asked for tools that will allow her kids to keep forging ahead.
“A true teacher is a scavenger,” she tells me, “always trying to find something better for their students.”
Ms. Edwards did not intend to become a teacher, true or otherwise. Social work was her first career, and teaching was the furthest thing from her mind. Even after getting two master’s degrees (in curriculum design and special ed) she planned on a career in education, but outside of the classroom. However, Memphis City Schools got word of her qualifications and talked her into taking a position as a special ed teacher at Klondike Elementary, in North Memphis. That was nine years ago.
“The children hooked me,” she says.
She tells me about the little girl with Down syndrome who couldn’t talk when she came into her classroom. “Her eyes told me she could talk,” Ms. Edwards says, and sure enough before leaving her classroom, the girl was expressing herself verbally to all who would listen.
And then there was the boy with leg braces who wasn’t walking and was getting only minimal physical therapy. “He was with me for seven hours a day! He wasn’t going to start walking unless I got him up and moving while he was in my room too.” And so she did. And so he does.
During our hour-long conversation, she spoke of many, many students — her love for them the obvious motivation for staying in the classroom that she had no plans of entering in the first place. She also credits her mentor teacher, Tunga Otis, who first worked with her at Klondike. “She always acted like a new teacher,” Ms. Edwards tells me, remembering how Ms. Otis changed up her classroom every year.
The key to working with learning disabled kids, she tells me, is remembering that they deserve the same high-quality education that any other student would get. She’s honest with them, telling them forthrightly that their disabilities aren’t going away, but that they can learn how to work their disability and not let it work them.
One way she discovered that her kids weren’t getting the same quality options as other kids was in the area of summer camps. After she heard one of her parents complaining that there were no camp options for special kids, she did some investigating herself and discovered this to be largely true. Not being one to take injustices like this lying down, she simply started her own.
This summer will be the fifth year for Kem’s House, a free, week-long camp for special needs kids. “I call it ‘Kem’s House’ because this is our house,” she says. “Nobody can come to this camp except for people with disabilities.”
Her church, St. Augustine Catholic, provides the space, and she has 10 volunteers — mostly other MCS teachers, but also her own mother, who takes a week off of work every year to help with the camp, and Melodie Woods, the special ed teacher at Hanley Elementary, who Ms. Edwards says is instrumental to pulling off the camp.
Last year, 11 kids came every day from 8 a.m. until noon, where they learned about nutrition through an arts-and-crafts-based curriculum. This year, they’ll be learning about science and she’s hoping to take her campers and their parents on an overnight trip to the Nashville children’s science museum.
Ms. Edwards always gives priority to her own students at Peabody, but then will accept as many other kids as she can handle with the volunteers, space and funding she has to work with. This year, she and her mom are selling calendars for $5 to raise money for the camp, but she is also set up as a non-profit so that any donations are tax-deductible.
To learn more about the camp or to donate, visit the website at www.kemshouseinc.org.