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Justine Vaitas

Justine Vaitas ’14 (Photo by Stan Vaitas ’14)

Justine Vaitas ’14

BS Special Education/Elementary Education

PreK-second grade special education teacher in Bluffton, South Carolina

Fun fact: Vaitas graduated from Saint Rose with her college sweetheart, Stan Vaitas ’14 (BFA in Art Education), who has since been working as a high school media arts teacher. They have a baby girl, Madison Rose, who was named Madison after Madison Avenue and Rose for Saint Rose.

What led you into the field of education?

As a child I always thought I wanted to be a pediatrician because I always liked helping people and working with kids. In high school, as a junior I took a teacher cadet class and I was hooked. I decided to major in education in college and in one of my first placements I worked in a special education classroom, and I knew that is where I wanted to be. I love the idea of teaching in differentiated small groups and working hard to see small breakthroughs for students. I decided to dual major at Saint Rose as elementary ed/special education.

What do you love about your work today?

I am a resource teacher and I love to work with the students providing inclusion and pull-out services. I love how students are excited to come to my room because they know I will teach them what they need at their level to be successful in the general education classroom. One of my favorite aspects is working with the parents and to see their joy that their students are progressing. Most people do not realize the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes for special education reachers – for example, differentiation for each student, IEP meetings, progress monitoring, etc., but the extra work is all worth it to see students progress and feel confident. Many parents have dated notions about what special education is, and I pride myself in changing their mentality to realize that we offer support to students to help close the gap.

Why did you choose Saint Rose to major in education?

I transferred to Saint Rose because of the dual degree program – elementary/special education. Other schools in the region did not have this opportunity for undergraduate students. I visited the school and fell in love with the campus and the city. Living on campus was great as I did not even need a car to get around since everything is walking distance. `

What was your experience like as an education student at Saint Rose?

The small class sizes and easy access to Professors made the experience very personal. Every professor knew their students by name and were always helpful and available. One of my favorite aspects was seeing the same faces from class to class and getting to live and grow with these individuals and see where they are today. I met some of my best friends during my time at Saint Rose!

How did Saint Rose prepare you for the classroom – what made it such a strong education program?

After graduating, I started as a first-year teacher at a brand-new school with another first-year special education teacher. This setting had me falling back on what I had learned at Saint Rose and really made me realize how well prepared I was to be in the classroom. There was nobody there to tell us how things had been done in the past, so we were able to build the department from scratch. I credit one of my favorite Professors, Dr. Ward, with giving us the tough love we needed to be successful in the real world. Dr. Ward made sure to give us a variety of student teaching placements, exposing us to the full picture of what it means to be a special education teacher.

Have you worked with any other Saint Rose graduates?

I have not– besides living with one. We live in South Carolina, and it is a long way from Albany.

Do you keep in touch with your fellow School of Ed alumni or your professors?

I keep in touch with most of the group that graduated with me in the same program. It is nice to touch base, share ideas, and see where their lives and professions are taking them. Social media helps to keep in touch with my former professors and teachers with whom I did my student-teaching placements.

What keeps you in this field – even with all of the challenges?

The students, and their small “ah ha” moments when they understand a concept. It is fulfilling to me to see the students succeed. Over the past few years, we have assembled a strong special education team and having the right people helps in making a big impact for students. It takes a special, kind-hearted, person to be devoted to this field and working with them makes challenges seem easier.

I believe you were selected as teacher of the year in your school. What did that mean to you?

I work in a large school with pre-kindergarten through eighth grade all being under one roof. To be selected from such a large pool of excellent teachers is a great honor! The fact that my peers saw me as a model teacher to represent our school is one of my biggest accomplishments. Each year I tried to take on a little more responsibility by taking on roles such as department chair after my second year, and other titles such as afterschool coordinator, and ADEPT evaluator of other teachers. It was my fourth year of teaching that I was nominated for top three, and my fifth year of teaching when I received this honor. This award made me feel appreciated by my peers. The kids think I am a celebrity because my picture is hanging in the hallway when you first enter the school!