by Katie Stepp

Kylie Leopard has always known she was meant to make a difference in children’s lives.

“When I was little, I would ask for dry erase markers and gradebooks for Christmas,” said the University of West Georgia junior, who is pursuing dual degrees in general education and special education. “I’ve wanted to teach kindergarten or first grade since a very young age.”

Kylie Leopard and her nephew ZadenEducation students are taught they may have special students one day when they have classrooms of their own. However, Leopard lives this every day.

Leopard’s 9-year-old nephew, Zaden, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome - a subtype of autism - when he was 7 years old.

She said UWG’s College of Education (COE) taught her how to understand this syndrome so she can better help her nephew. This is why the COE holds a personal place in Leopard’s heart, especially the special education program.

“One major thing I have learned in my education classes is if I show interest in Zaden, he’ll show interest in me and gain more trust toward me,” she explained. “I learned the importance behind validating Zaden’s emotions through reading articles and watching videos for my special education class. These materials make us understand how we can help these students as educators. But, I took this material beyond the classroom and learned how I can help my nephew as an aunt.”

Currently a student teacher in Carroll County Schools, Leopard is able to take this knowledge and apply it to her work at the elementary school, showing her third graders their feelings are valued and important. Leopard knows this makes a huge difference in the classroom and with her nephew.

Applying what she has learned at UWG and working with her nephew has prepared Leopard for experiences with special needs students in her placement.

“It’s important for me to take the time to understand who my students are individually and, if they have uniqueness, take that into consideration,” Leopard said. “A student with autism is going to be distant, so it’s important to help them along instead of forcing them.”

The difference Leopard makes in the lives of students instills confidence in her purpose. She said she hopes future teachers take the same lessons she’s learned through her experiences as an aunt, a student and an educator.

“It’s important for us to let these children be themselves while we take the time to understand them; figure out their uniqueness; and make connections with them,” she said.

Posted on April 3, 2018