By Richelle Montgomery aka “Mrs. Monty”

Fresh out of Westminster College, and newly married, my husband and I moved to Virginia so that he could finish his law degree at Washington and Lee University. During the summer of 2012, I anxiously waited to hear back from a school that would have the faith and courage to offer me a position as a first-year lead teacher.

We hadn’t been in Virginia more than a week when I received a phone call from Minnick School in Roanoke, Va. “We would love to invite you to be the lead teacher in a classroom for students with emotional disabilities in kindergarten through third grade,” said the lovely secretary. I felt exuberant and was relieved. Little did I know that I was not just accepting a job–I was about to be thrust into a position that would change my life.

During my undergrad experience, I spent 570 hours working in different special education settings. I worked with the full range of students–from simple learning disabilities to children with complex emotional and behavioral challenges. Upon accepting this job at Minnick I felt that I could handle anything.

But my previous experience did not prepare me for the needs of my students, who for whatever reasons, were at Minnick because they were not succeeding in a traditional public school classroom. My students were struggling, and I was struggling, too, to find the best way to create an environment where they could begin to enjoy learning. I thought to myself, I’m going to have to do something drastic, something BIG. I had the brilliant idea to write them a rap.

The rap went really well, but it definitely didn’t improve classroom behavior right away. As I drove home after those first few days, I thought, I only have eight hours a day! What am I going to do to help these little ones?

I decided to try out another new approach. Instead of having classroom rules, rules that obviously hadn’t worked for these kids prior to them being referred to Minnick, I created a classroom contract.

The contract linked how to be a great citizen with the practice of virtues.  Choosing joy, defined as finding a way to be happy even when things don’t go your way, is giving 110%, trying your very best; and respecting yourself, respecting others, and respecting the property. These are the five key areas on the contract.  The coolest thing about this contract is that we tied all the virtues together with being a good citizen.

We make choices every second of every day. Choices can either work for us or against us. Three months into the school year I was able to connect our contract with negative behavior. “Leon, you are making such a great choice working at your desk! “ “Dave, you can either choose to stay angry, or can choose joy. This morning was the past; we’ve been there, done that, we can only change what we do right now.”  “Isaac is respecting himself so well by brushing his teeth after lunch!”  “Jeremiah is showing such great perseverance!”

My students know that I try my very best, especially during our spelling class. “We are not made to be perfect! If we were all perfect we would be robots. Can anyone help Mrs. Monty with this spelling word?” And the list goes on.

I teach at Minnick because it brings me joy to champion these kids. I focus on peace, even though I’m in such a busy place, because I need to be that rock that my students can depend on. I want to pour out all of my love, all my faith, all my encouragement on my little ones. Teaching makes me feel empowered, and it’s a mission I believe in.

Richelle MontgomeryRichelle Montgomery is in her second year of teaching at the Roanoke campus of the LFSVA Minnick Schools. She won the LFSVA “Promising Signs” contest with the photo above.