It’s Teacher Appreciation Week! Today’s highlight spotlights Tom Braverman, educator at Clear Creek Amana Community School District’s Transition Service Center. Braveman is a veteran special education teacher with 35 years of experience in the field and was recently recognized as one of the six finalists for the 2024 Teacher of the Year award.

Braverman has received acclaim for creating a model special education program and for his passion for developing vocational and professional skills with students. His current position allows him to work with students ages 18-21 to develop skills to be as independent as possible after graduation.

For Teacher Appreciation Week, Braverman shared his thoughts on teaching in Iowa and how he continues to stay passionate and grow as an educator.

Who was your favorite teacher and why?
I would say my favorite teacher was Mrs. Letizio at Ernest Horn School in Iowa City. She was kind, compassionate and made every student feel like they were valued and a part of the collective whole. She was kind of a hippie and always wore tie-dye clothes and flowers in her hair. She created a safe zone in her classroom, and I truly felt loved. There were no teacher’s pets and every student’s uniqueness was celebrated.

We had students of color in our classroom, which was unusual at that time in Iowa City. All of them were the children of University of Iowa students who had come from countries far away. This made her class culturally diverse and being exposed to that helped make me into the person I am. She taught us all the importance of unconditional love, acceptance and tolerance of those who ate, lived and worshiped very differently than we did. I was able to keep in touch with her over the years, and although I have not seen her for a long time, her spirit remains in my soul.

Shout out to Mrs. Letizio -- you taught me a lot more than reading, writing and arithmetic. You taught all of your students the importance of community and you always kept the bar of expectations high.

Why are you passionate about teaching? What things do you love about working with students? 
I truly believe that I have learned far more from my students over the years than they ever did from me. The “continuing education” they’ve shared with me continues to guide my navigation through life. Having contact with students every day makes me feel grounded, fulfilled and blessed. They are the fuel that keeps this old engine chugging along, and without them, my motor would seize up and I would be stranded on the side of life's highway.

Being a teacher is in many ways like drinking from the fountain of youth. Their exuberance and love of life is contagious and I cannot imagine what my life would have been like had I not chosen this profession. I am thankful to all my current and former students; they have helped me remain sane and continue to give me hope for this planet’s future.        

What do you think are the keys to a student’s success and how do you help foster that? 
Each student is unique, and some are more resilient than others. In special education, one of the many missions a teacher has is to figure out how to best individualize the learning experience for each student so that they can be as successful as possible. That being said, all students benefit from a safe and nurturing environment where they can experience unconditional love and high, yet realistic expectations.

As they demonstrate measurable growth in all domains, those expectations grow as well. Students must feel respected and validated and have opportunities to succeed and fail. We must help students understand that everything in life is a valuable experience whether it is favorable or not. To shield a student from life’s pitfalls is a disservice to them because those experiences often offer the best chance to learn and help them establish the resilience they will need in order to experience true success.

Additionally, so many of our students spend an inordinate amount of time in the virtual world on screens. They tend to believe that everything is supposed to be soft and fuzzy and leave them feeling wonderful because that’s what their friends are posting. If we really want to help our students learn and grow, we need to show them that real conversations and laughter are far better than AI and LOL’s. We need to model these behaviors for them and consciously reduce the amount of screen time in the classroom. Technology is a tool, and I am all for tools. However, we don’t want to become addicted to our electronic devices.  

Over the years, how have you grown as an educator? What opportunities do you see in the next few years in education? 
I would say I have grown by becoming a better listener and adopter of the best practices I have seen work first-hand. We need to look to business and industry to see what is trending if we are to help our students become self-actualized adults who are ready to transition into the workforce or postsecondary education without missing a beat.

What advice would you give to a new teacher starting out in the field? 
I would first thank them for taking on this incredibly tough but fulfilling line of work. I would then implore them to learn from their students. The truth is they have many lessons to teach, but we need to be willing to listen to them and take on the role of a student. I would ask them to learn about their dreams, needs and wants and allow them to shape their own learning as much as possible. Figure out what background knowledge they have and capitalize on it. What things intrigue, entertain and excite them? What is their preferred learning style and how can you best assist them in becoming proficient? Finally, get to know your student’s parents and advocates. Being a good educator is all about establishing relationships and building trust with the people you serve. All stakeholders need to be on the same page and work collaboratively in order for measurable student growth to occur.

Your achievements have included building a model special education program and supporting vocational skill development with students. What are some details of your success and why is vocational skill development important for student success? 
When most people think of their jobs or careers they see it as a source of income. However, it is so much more than that. It is a way to increase our social circles, it gives us a sense of belonging and inclusion, a sense of fulfillment, and we get a chance to increase our skill set and learn new things.

Whether it is volunteering at a local food bank, or working in a paid capacity at an area business, any special education program that serves secondary students with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities should include work experience as a part of their program. Although we can simulate work sites at our schools, it is better if those work experiences are community-based.

In the past, we worked with 55 area businesses and nonprofits and each student went into the community at least once a week to learn the soft and hard work skills in authentic settings. We collected Likert scale and task analysis data to monitor the individual students' progress. Ideally, they learn the tasks associated with each job and can eventually perform them independently. However, not every special education student will become independent, and they will need the support of a job coach or co-worker in order to complete their assigned tasks. Some students will be offered paid employment as a result of their community-based internships, and that is the ultimate goal!