Exceptional Preparation

In both a master’s program in special education and two new undergraduate programs, Bethel students gain the skills to ensure exceptional outcomes for exceptional students.

By Katie Johnson ’19 | design by Tom Vukelich ’82

February 15, 2021 | 2 p.m.

Leonie Giles GS’21 and Nichole Olsen GS’18 have embraced their call to more in the special education field.

Leonie Giles GS’21 and Nichole Olsen GS’18 have embraced their call to more in the special education field.

This story originally appeared in the winter 2021 issue of Bethel Magazine.

Becoming a special education professional requires a rather special calling. It helps to have superhuman quantities of patience, firm boundary-setting abilities, endless empathy, endurance, compassion, and a healthy dose of Christ-like love. Special education teachers stand ready to invest in their students, ensuring exceptional educational outcomes and finding meaning and purpose in the process. In response to the high demand for professionals in this area, Bethel has expanded special education programs across the university. In addition to the M.A. in Special Education, launched in 1991, the first class of undergraduate special education students will graduate from Bethel’s College of Adult & Professional Studies (CAPS) and College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) in spring 2021. As they adapt to ever-evolving changes in the era of COVID-19, Bethel special education graduates are highly qualified, prepared, and ready to serve their students—whatever circumstances come their way.

“Bethel special education teachers are well prepared to address the complex needs and recognize and celebrate the gifts that God has given each of their K-12 students.”

— Katie Bonawitz, program director for graduate programs in special education

Leonie Giles GS’21: From Nonprofit to Classroom

When Bethel transitioned to a virtual instruction learning environment in spring 2020, Leonie Giles GS’21 couldn’t help but dread her nine-to-five Saturday class suddenly meeting online. She expected to spend the day figuring out technology rather than connecting with classmates. But that morning, her doorbell rang, and on her doorstep were ingredients for a family recipe from her professor. Her first assignment? Make a coffee cake.

Peg McCormick, associate professor of education, not only delivered do-it-yourself coffee cakes, but also handy signs that students could put up in their classrooms or home offices to show they were engaged in a virtual meeting—a practical gift Giles still uses today. “Those are just the little things— examples of how Bethel professors in the special education program do so much,” Giles says. “We were dreading the long day, but we all left energized.”

Giles’ journey to the special education field—and to Bethel— unfolded rather unexpectedly. She and her family lived in New York, where she worked as a charity navigator in nonprofit management for 17 years. After her husband died 13 years ago, her brother-in-law tried to persuade her to move to Minnesota to be near their family. Giles was open to the idea, but she waited for the right moment for her and her two children.

That moment arrived in a whirlwind. Her family visited Minnesota over Christmas break in 2016, and by February 2017, she bought a house on the same cul-desac as her in-laws. Once her kids finished their school year in New York and Giles sold her house there, she moved her family across the country and changed careers. By January 2018, she’d transitioned from the nonprofit realm to working as a paraprofessional in a special education classroom. She had no idea that she’d fall in love with it. But three months later, she was enrolled in Bethel’s M.A. in Special Education program. “Unless you know differently, you don’t know what you’re missing,” she says. “I didn’t realize I was lonely until I moved here and discovered this support system among family. Bethel felt the same way. It felt like people were there to support you.”

Leonie Giles’ office is part of the resource room, where students can take a break, grab a fidget, or find a change of scenery. “I really try to make it a safe space for students,” she says.

Leonie Giles’ office is part of the resource room, where students can take a break, grab a fidget, or find a change of scenery. “I really try to make it a safe space for students,” she says.

Giles has finished her classes and is now licensed as a special education teacher in Minnesota. She works as a lead special education teacher at Mississippi Elementary School in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, as she finishes her thesis at Bethel. Harnessing talents she honed in her nonprofit experience, she manages other special education teachers, paraprofessionals, and paraeducators in the classrooms. Her favorite part of the job is knowing the impact she makes on her students. “Sometimes, you’re the only smile these students see all day,” she says. “They get to school, and you say the first friendly thing to them. I have a direct impact, and that’s really big for me.”

After a day of working during the pandemic, Giles looked around her classroom. “This career change is my mid-life crisis, I guess,” she laughs. “I started over.” But her new start has given her a new sense of purpose. In special education, she’s found a passion that aligns with three critical areas: her personal strengths, the ability to earn a living, and a way to make a difference in the world.

“Bethel graduates are making a difference in students’ lives in Minnesota and across the world. Principals and special education directors in Minnesota seek Bethel-prepared special educators because of the proven approach provided by Bethel University.”

— Mary Lindell, program director for undergraduate programs in special education

Nichole Olsen GS’18: Embracing a Mission Field 

Nichole Olsen GS’18 was talking to God as she drove home after a particularly hard day of teaching. Worn out and wondering if this was really what she was meant to do, she prayed, “God, I just don’t know.” Then she pulled into a gas station, and as she got out of her car, she heard someone greet her. “Best teacher ever! What’s up?” She turned to find one of her eighth graders from the year before waving to her. She took a deep breath, smiled, and thanked God for that priceless moment of reassurance. “I feel like God is faithful to continuously give me what I need when I need it,” she says.

That’s been true since the moment Olsen found herself serving in the Learners with Autism and Unique Challenges (LAUNCH) program as a paraprofessional nine years ago. She started working part time for Oxbow Creek Elementary School in Champlin, Minnesota, and gradually transitioned to full time. As she pursued her M.A. in Special Education at Bethel, she was able to work on a limited license as a special education teacher leading her own classroom. There, she created a safe space for students to be themselves. “I’m of the mindset that kids need a family away from their family,” she says. “They need to feel loved and cared for and safe, especially my kind of student, because a lot of them have been dealing with trauma. They need consistency and goodness and the boundaries that come with that—including firmness and high expectations—but definitely love. No matter what.”

In Nichole Olsen’s classroom, everything has a place and a purpose. “Every part of the design is by intention,” she says. “When you walk in, it has a calming effect.”

In Nichole Olsen’s classroom, everything has a place and a purpose. “Every part of the design is by intention,” she says. “When you walk in, it has a calming effect.”

Olsen herself found that kind of community at Bethel. She knew she could come just as she was—with her dreams, goals, and passion—and be welcomed into the program. She felt supported while she was a student, and that support continues even now, as she navigates continually changing circumstances. “Bethel was such a beautiful light in my life when I needed it,” she says. “It’s such a God-honoring community. Getting the kind of support that I received through Bethel really confirmed that.”

Olsen continued working in her school district while attending Bethel, and throughout the program, she noticed familiar faces. The assistant principal of her school taught one of her Bethel classes, and another professor helped her navigate a challenging situation in her first year of teaching. That overlap between Twin Cities school districts and the Bethel classroom helps alumni like Olsen find support far beyond graduation.

As she discerns the next steps in her career—how long she’ll work for the LAUNCH program and how she can incorporate her heart for educating the next generation of special education teachers—she’s invigorated by the chance to work in such a diverse and dynamic field. “It’s definitely a career worth investing in, because you serve on the front lines of caring for God’s people,” she says. “Being a special education teacher in the trenches is just as much of a mission field as anything else, because you are loving the people who have been forgotten, pushed aside, or fallen through the cracks in the school system. To me, that is a mission field.”

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