Life is full of surprises. When Floyd Light Middle School teacher Andrew Locke set out to teach, he couldn’t have daydreamed a more foreign future than his current reality. He didn’t think he would become a special education teacher, that he would move to Oregon—or that he’d win the esteemed Educator 180 Award.
The awards, now in their 11th year, honor educators across the United States for helping struggling students turn their lives around by building their reading and math literacy. “In high school, I had done peer mentoring,” says Locke. “When I got to college, I had no interest in a desk job, and teaching seemed like something I’d enjoy, but I was looking at the high-school level.”
Locke was recommended for the award for excelling at teaching System 44, which is a reading intervention class focused on special education students. Annually, only five System 44 teachers from around the country win the award.
Moreover, while Locke finds his line of work especially gratifying, it’s not what he had initially planned.
“I was certified to teach history, economics and political science,” explains Locke. “When I moved out here in 2007, I went back to school and got a special education license.”
Locke follows on the heels of Floyd Light teacher Craig Topolski, who won the award last year.
As a teacher in one of the most diverse districts in the state, Locke works hard to create a sense of community in his System 44 classroom, developing meaningful relationships with every student and inspiring them to grow both personally and academically.
Before moving out west to Oregon, Locke lived in Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital is what provided him with the emotional ammunition to aspire to become a special education teacher.
“I had a student who had cerebral palsy who was in a wheelchair; I taught him when he was in fifth and sixth grade,” says Locke, who got a special education license at Portland State. “In fifth grade, he had a full-time assistant, but we got to the point where we wanted to see how independent he could be. By sixth grade, he didn’t have an assistant at all. We took him on an outdoor adventure trip and got him up on skis.”
Locke’s experience with this particular student ignited a lasting passion for helping students with special needs. This was easier said than done, however.
“The biggest shift between now and my early career is that I was super-focused on what I was doing as a teacher with developing curriculum; I really started to focus on how the students are learning as opposed to what I’m doing up there,” says Locke.
By all accounts, Locke’s strategy of focusing on his kids individually is working. “His whole teaching approach involves finding and using students’ unique strengths to help them overcome their struggles and develop a positive self-concept,” adds Samantha Charles, one of Locke’s colleagues at Floyd Light. “At the same time, Andy has strong academic expectations and shows his students every day that he believes they can succeed.”
(All of Locke’s colleagues who were contacted for this story referred to him as “Andy,” a telling sign of the easy esteem in which they hold him.)
“I’ve been in education for over 30 years and can easily say that Andy is one of the best teachers with whom I’ve worked,” says additional colleague Joe Parvankin. “He cares deeply about kids and will go above and beyond to meet their specific needs. Students love him because it’s obvious that he cares.”
For his part, Locke concurs that teaching for him is an emotional craft. He also contends that being a special education teacher suits his style best.
“It has presented a different challenge,” he says. “The class sizes are smaller, and I have a phenomenal assistant who helps out with the kids. I grew up with somebody in my family with special needs, so I’ve always been around it.”
And for the moment, it looks like Locke is in it for the long run.
His efforts have resulted in an average classroom Lexile™ growth of 210 points.
Locke received an invitation to attend the 25th annual Model Schools Conference in June, where an award ceremony was held to recognize his achievements. He will also receive an additional library of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt titles for his classroom that will be selected specifically for his students’ ages and reading levels. “This is my fourth year doing special education, and it’s been a nice step personally in my career. It’s given me a new challenge,” says Locke.