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The Teacher Who Chose to Stay: Laura Cuthbertson

2 students work independently at a desks in a classroom.

In the summer of 2017, Laura Cuthbertson had a chat with her husband. The subject was a familiar topic all couples cover from time to time: future work plans. As much as she loved her job and the kids in her self-contained classroom, Laura was a bit tired of the commute since the couple moved into their new home.

Being 50 miles away will do that to you. When your round trip is 2.5 hours every day, you start to wonder what else you could be doing with that time. “It’s quite the distance to drive. But I love what I do, the program and staff are amazing, and this is the only school I’ve taught at. But it was taking a toll.”

Laura and her husband came to a consensus. The 2017-18 school year would be her last at Royal Palm Middle School. She’d find a job closer to home. But then, as is often the case when it comes to matters like these, something surprising happened: Readtopia’s special education reading curriculum landed in her classroom.

“Special Education is something I wanted to do”

Laura got a bachelor’s degree in audiology and speech pathology, then found her way to Phoenix. After spending five years as an assistant in an autism classroom, she realized she could be a great teacher. She went back to school, got her teaching certificate, and is now in her fourth year teaching.

“My nephew was diagnosed with autism when he was three or so,” she said. “There’s just something amazing about those kids. Ever since I’ve been able to interact with him, I’ve known special education is something I wanted to do.”

Laura’s current classroom is filled with 5th through 8th graders, and the kids have a range in level from late kindergarten to early 3rd or 4th grade. “My students are on the verge of maybe sitting in gen-ed classes, but they’re just outside that range,” she said.

Laura Cuthbertson works with a student sitting at a desk in the classroom.

Keeping Good Teachers in the Classroom

With teacher turnover at 50% every five years in special education, The administrator’s task of attracting and retaining good teachers is paramount, and this task is especially challenging in special education. Teacher turnover is at 50% every five years, and it’s often due to the simple fact that being a special educator is tough.

Special educators are responsible for a multitude of never-ceasing to-dos. Instruct across the widest range of skills imaginable, modify accordingly, write extensive IEPs, drive academic progress on alternate assessments, teach life skills for transition, and (as if all that weren’t enough) develop their own curriculum outside of school hours. It’s a ton of work, and the fruits of all this labor often can’t be seen.

But providing the right comprehensive, research-based curriculum can relieve much of this burden while bringing the joy back into teaching. Enter Readtopia.

The first person in the Washington Elementary School District to try Readtopia was JeanMarie Jacoby, who works in the AT department. She loved the curriculum and what she saw in her kids because of it, so she presented it to the district’s special education department. It was decided that several teachers would try it out. Laura was one of them.

As anyone who works with children with autism knows, it’s often a struggle for students to identify feelings, whether in themselves or in others. But the moment Laura launched into Readtopia’s Journey to the Center of the Earth lesson, “The responses I got from them were jaw-dropping. They blew me away. I was skeptical when I first saw the curriculum; I thought it looked pretty hardcore, but there’s just something about these lessons. The students wanted to engage and participate. It really grabbed their attention.”

Laura had an example ready. “During Frankenstein, there’s a lesson where a guy is making different faces, and the class is supposed to describe how he’s feeling. It’s very difficult for my students. One student in particular is very quiet. I typically give him two choices and wait 15 seconds for his response. So imagine my shock when I hear a throat being cleared, I see his hand raised, I hear an answer, and it’s appropriate, and it’s loud enough that I can hear it across the room. And he responded for all four pictures.”

“I love this so much!”

Laura Cuthbertson presents a lesson on social/emotional learning in a classroom.

Laura’s students aren’t the only ones who have changed. She now teaches foundational reading skills (letter sounds, sounding words out) rather than reading and helping them find information in the text. “Instead of me doing it for them, we jump back into the text together. They’ve even started doing it on their own. At least a couple times a week, I go ‘I love this so much!’”

After seeing the effect Readtopia had on her autism classroom, Laura and her husband had another chat. The topic was the same, but the content was a complete 180. “I talked him into it,” she said with a laugh. “I asked for one more year, at least. Readtopia completely changed my mind.”


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Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D.​

Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. Her focus is on understanding the best ways to assess and teach reading and writing to children with the most severe disabilities. As a special education teacher, Dr. Erickson has worked to support students with a range of disabilities in a variety of classroom settings, particularly students who do not use speech as their primary means of communication.


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