Jeffrey Bellamy teaches students with intellectual disabilities, communication and sensory deficits at Mt. Herman Exceptional Student Center. This year, he was honored as the Teacher of the Year at his school and recognized for his outstanding achievements as a Florida Blue Spotlight winner at JPEF's EDDY Awards. Thanks to a generous classroom grant provided by Florida Blue, Mr. Bellamy was able to install a sensory retreat for his students right in their classroom, any time they need it.
We asked Mr. Bellamy a few questions to learn more about his story.
What is a day in your classroom like?
I teach middle school students with intellectual disabilities, communication and sensory deficits. The students also show maladaptive behavior at times (hitting, kicking, screaming, biting). My room is set up to facilitate both large group learning and small group/individual instruction. A group of desks is arranged in a semicircle at the front of the room for the morning meeting. After the morning meeting, the students break up into small groups of either two or three, and the paraprofessionals and I engage in direct instruction at students’ desks. Below is a description of my classroom morning meeting lesson: I sing a “Good Morning” song and greet each student individually by name to gain his/her attention. Students respond with a pre-programmed “Good morning” on a voice output communication aid (switch). Then the students “recite” the Pledge of Allegiance using switches. Since one of my students can speak, I encourage him to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as I accompany him on guitar. We take attendance by singing a song about who came to school, then go through the days of the week and the months of the year. Finally, we sing “What’s the Weather Like Today?” and respond “Today the weather is...” The students use pictures with the words “Sunny” or “Cloudy” and the students choose the appropriate weather conditions. Students progress through the day using an individual visual schedule created by me.
Paraprofessionals are invaluable members every classroom team at Mt. Herman Exceptional Student Center. Since I began teaching seven years ago, I have always been blessed with very helpful paraprofessionals who share in the vision I have for my classroom. This year, I worked with Ms. Avis Benjamin, Ms. Georgianna Hayes, Ms. Lora Masline and Mr. Ivory Winfrey. Without their help, my classroom could not run as efficiently.
Can you share a story of a student who you felt benefited from your class, or who impacted you?
All of my students enjoy the fact that I use music during instruction, but one of my former students stands out in my mind as having benefited from my class. She often showed a sad demeanor when she arrived to school, and she was hesitant to follow staff instructions. When I used music during instruction, her mood changed from sad to happy, and she would clap her hands along with the music played. Her favorite song was “Wheels on the Bus.” I would start the song (“The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round…all through the— “and I would wait for her to finish the lyric. She always sang, “TOWN!” Even after she left my class, when I saw her, I would sing “Wheels on the Bus,” and she would sing “TOWN!” loudly at the end. This demonstrated the fact that music is a powerful teaching tool in my classroom.
What do you love about your school?
I am thankful that I began my teaching career at Mt. Herman Exceptional Student Center. I did not earn an education degree in college. My professional background includes a Master’s degree in music therapy and 12 years of experience in the mental health field. I am glad that I could make the transition to teaching. I find working with my students very rewarding and fulfilling, particularly when a student demonstrates knowledge of new material taught in my class. This unique school fosters a close-knit feeling between faculty and staff members that allows us to get to know each other well and work cohesively as part of a team. Our students benefit from the teamwork modeled by my paraprofessionals and me.
Do you have a principal or assistant principal who has made a difference in your career? How?
The principal who hired me to work at my school made a profound difference in my career. Prior to teaching, I worked in mental health at a state psychiatric hospital for 12 years. Many of the individuals with whom I worked had lived there for several of the years and had become institutionalized. I believed that I could affect more change as a teacher than I did working at the hospital. Although it was not an easy transition from the mental health field to education, I might not have had the chance to become a teacher if the principal had not shown a willingness to hire a career-changer like myself. The current administrator has helped me to hone my professional skills so that I can teach more effectively.
How do you plan to spend your award money?
Because my students have intellectual disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorder and have sensory deficits, they need special interventions to address their unique needs. Our school has two sensory rooms for all students to use. However, due to limited availability of time in the room, each classroom has designated days and times to use the rooms. By creating a separate sensory room in a space within my classroom, my students will always have a retreat where they can sit separate from their peers when they become overstimulated. Sometimes, students will engage in maladaptive behavior to avoid tasks that they are assigned in class. I am excited to have a sensory room set up inside my classroom so that students can learn to use self-calming strategies in the same environment where they spend most of their time at school. By having a place to calm down in the classroom, students might show less frequent avoidance behavior.
Thanks to Mr. Bellamy and all the teachers in Duval County who make a difference in the lives of students each day. Learn more about the EDDY Awards and how you can help support great teachers in Duval County through the Jacksonville Public Education Fund.