Katya Robinson - California Teacher of the Year

Katya Robinson is a special education teacher at Park Side Elementary in Sebastopol. She was one of five teachers from around the state named as California Teacher of the Year. 

A Q and A with Katya Robinson, a special education teacher at Park Side Elementary

On Oct. 4, the California Department of Education named five educators as the 2020 California Teachers of the Year. Among them was Katya Robinson, a special education teacher at Park Side Elementary in Sebastopol.

You may recognize the name. Sonoma West did a profile of Robinson in May of this year when she was chosen as Sonoma County’s Teacher of the Year.  In her Q&A with Sonoma West, Robinson said a lot of interesting things that didn’t make it into that first, shorter article, so we’re happy to have the chance to publish her full Q&A, in which she discusses her rocky beginnings as a teacher, using art and athletics in special education and her advice for new teachers. 

How long have you been teaching for?

I have been “officially” teaching for about 15 years in public school for west county. Before my official teaching started, I used to work for True to Life Children’s Services in a group home for children with emotional disabilities.

Have you always wanted to be a teacher?

When I was younger, I didn’t have a strong direction in life. I knew I just had to keep going through life and maybe something would inspire me to have a career. It was like I was sailing a ship with no compass and winds blowing me in circles.

My younger self was lucky enough to have some strong mentors come into my life to give me a direction. I kept going to school, and doors kept opening in the direction of teaching and community leadership. I started working at True to Life Children’s Services and loved the idea of changing kids lives by offering them something I didn’t have growing up: consistency, boundaries and inspiration.

From there I got my English degree at Sonoma State University and started working on my teaching credential.

I started working for West County Special Education Consortium as a behavioral assistant. Within the first two months, my student I was working with was independent in a general education classroom, and I said to myself, “Wow, this is fun, and they are paying me for it!”

West County Consortium opened a kindergarten to second grade classroom and gave me the position. I found my direction in life, and it’s to support a population of people who aren’t necessarily thought of first.

Was there a learning curve or did teaching come naturally to you?

There was definitely a learning curve. When I ended my schooling, I decided to jump right into teaching and skip over student teaching. Even with all my years in schooling, I feel like nothing could have prepared me for my first years in teaching. I was at school from 6 a.m. to about 5 p.m. I’m very grateful I had teacher colleagues and an administrators that were supportive, despite my long list of mistakes.

Certain things did come naturally to me though, like my positivity, sense of humor, passion for equality and a fierce drive to give my best to anything I’m involved in. As long as I stayed true to who I was, I knew my teaching would improve along with my understanding of the systems.

What are some specific things that you do that you think contribute most to your students’ success in the classroom?

I offer flexibility around education and very strong advocacy. I believe it’s the educator’s job to open doors for our students, especially during their early years. I spend a lot of time creating opportunities to learn and breaking down boundaries to their learning. 

Most of the techniques I use come from experience working with many different students, specialists and assistants. Some specific ones I use are a flexible classroom environment, structure and routines, positive behavioral support strategies, restorative justice, sensory regulation diets, online progress monitoring data, creativity and humor.

Education should be fun, and I make sure to bring a positive energy every day to the learning environment.

What is your favorite thing to do with your students?

One of my most favorite things this year was bringing in the Sonoma Art Residency program. We got approved for this grant and brought in a general education fourth grade class to work with my students as buddies. We had nine general education students and nine special education students working in supporting each other to make these beautiful art displays.

Over the six weeks of the Sonoma Art Residency, I saw a shift in my student’s confidence level, empowerment levels and social skills. I also saw our general education buddies develop compassion, acceptance and an inclusive view of people with disabilities.

At the end of the program, each child did a reflection on their experiences, and these reflections were some of the most beautiful, heart-felt words I have ever heard.

This is why we really need to take a look at special education and what it means. Special education is a service, not an educational placement away from peers.

I have also introduced my students to soccer. I grew up playing soccer, and my soccer community helped me a lot growing up when my family was going through hardships, so I wanted my students to have the same sorts of experiences. We have created a soccer program called Epic Athletes, where our students can access the wonderful game of soccer, build a community and feel a sense of belonging.

Let’s talk about the question of inclusion — including students with special needs in general education classes.

Public school is a funny thing when it comes to students with special education services. With class sizes increasing and more demands being placed on general education teachers, inclusion is becoming more difficult to achieve.

This is something that I have a very hard time accepting, knowing how successful inclusion can be. I look at my students, and I believe they could be educated in a general education setting with modifications and accommodations that all students could benefit from.

If inclusion seems difficult to achieve in a school year, I find ways to make it happen. As a special education teacher, you need to advocate for our students and demand equity.

You’ve mentioned something called “reverse-inclusion” –the practice of creating opportunities for special education students and general education students to learn together. How does the process of art-making assist in the success of those reverse-inclusion days?

Art and sports are two things that everyone can be included in. It’s creative, inclusive, and everyone is allowed to perform at their own level. Each of my students did have a “buddy” from general education to help them remember the steps and stay on task, but my students helped their buddies learn about patience, humor and acceptance.

You also discuss the positive impact that sports can have on your students. I'd love to hear about improvements you have observed in your students since directing your Epic Athletes program.

Epic Athletes is my heart! This program was created just as much for our students with disabilities as their parents. I feel like it’s our job to bring people together instead of separating us. Epic Athletes currently has a soccer program, basketball and a summer camp. We are expanding this program to include social groups, parent educational nights and yoga.

These programs have empowered my students and my student’s parents to be more active in our community and to have a sense of acceptance — a sense that there is nothing wrong with their children.

When I see our students out there running, laughing and building friendships, they come back to school inspired and happy. When you see the parents on the sidelines, cheering, sharing experiences and laughing for an hour, you see a weight lifted from their world a little bit. Epic Athletes is a small example of how we all should practice acceptance and inclusive practices.

What advice would you give to other teachers just starting their careers in special education?   

The first five years are 100% the hardest you will ever have, and you will question if this is the right path for you. Within those five years, find a good support system at your site. Who are your “go-to” teachers? Who can be a good mentor? Who can keep a secret when you are venting?

When you are interviewing for the position, make sure you feel comfortable with your administrator. Are they supportive?

I would also recommend keeping your door open and allowing people to come in and help. Spend the first five years learning and welcoming different perspectives and expertises. Be honest in areas that you need improvement and be honest in areas that you excel in.

Once you get past those five years, you will realize once again why you decided to be a teacher and what brought you the this field.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

I lost my house in the Tubbs Fire, and I’m learning a lot about the rebuilding process and how frustrating it can be. Picking a house color is the worst!  I think it took me three weeks to pick a color.

Also, I have been engaged for five years to a wonderful man named John Gonsalves. He is currently graduating from SSU in the engineering program. I’m very proud of him because I could never do the kind of math he does.

And I run a co-ed soccer league called Sonoma County Adult Coed Soccer League.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

What spare time?

I play a lot of soccer and organize a lot of soccer. I really do love bringing people together and the soccer community.

I also enjoy creating art in my spare time using different materials. I kind of go through phases with my art, including doing canvas prints, photography and shirt designs. Currently I’m into designing phone cases—I know, random. The phone cases get pretty complicated, and it allows me time to decompress at the end of the day.

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