Sul Ross Elementary’s Mary Worley teaches high-functioning autistic children in kindergarten through second grade in the school’s Flex Program. She helps students develop their social skills and behavioral goals.

After working in commercial property management and in project management for more than a decade, Mary Worley was feeling unfulfilled.

“I had this feeling, like it was a calling from God — to ‘Drop what you’re doing, get a teaching degree and go help kids, go teach kids,’ so I did, and I went back to school,” Worley said.

At 46, she was certified in general education and special education. She started her teaching career at Sul Ross Elementary, where she just finished her third year teaching high-functioning autistic children in kindergarten through second grade in the Flex Program.

“I wanted to do both general education and special education, and I couldn’t decide what to do, but with this job, I can do both,” Worley said. “I’ve always had an interest in autism ever since high school.”

The Flex Program allows autistic children to be in a special education classroom where they learn social skills — how to be part of a group, how to make friends, how to act and react — and then they also attend a regular classroom at their grade level. The inclusion in regular classrooms allows the children to put into practice the social skills they are learning, with the goal of becoming more independent.

“Some of them are on grade level but have behavioral goals, so it’s about working on behaviors they need to get in check,” Worley said.

Behaviors they work on are things such as how to stand in line or how to act appropriately when they don’t get what they want.

There can be tantrums, screaming and out of control laughter. Some days there are tears. Worley said the challenges have taught her to have patience, grace for students and for herself and to have a good sense of humor. She also has a motto she got from a TobyMac song that she recites often to inspire positivity: “Speak hope, speak love, speak life.”

“It’s my classroom motto — it just means that we try to do our best; we have some grace, and then we try to build each other up; and if we make a mistake, there’s always an ‘I’m sorry,’ and we don’t do it again,” Worley said. “Because you can’t always be perfect all the time. They do what they can, and I do what I can to help them. I say, ‘Just because one kid doesn’t look like another kid, that’s OK, be who you are, do your best,’ and I try to do the same thing.”

Although she’s only been teaching for three years, she’s seen a lot of success. That success has brought the fulfillment she was seeking, she said.

“I’ve seen the power of social stories, the power of what learning the right behaviors and what’s acceptable can do,” Worley said. “I’ve seen kids that are just out of control become functional — just like their peers and sometimes even better than their peers. It’s amazing to be able to see that change.”

Knowing how to best help her students, whether through modeling, technology or other techniques, has taken a lot of hard work and dedication.

“I spend a lot of time researching,” Worley said. If a technique isn’t working for a student, she tries hard to find out what will. “I find I’m constantly trying to research; go to autism conferences to learn what the latest things are — to see if those things will work.”

It’s that hunger for knowledge, her passion and kindness that make her an extraordinary teacher, said Sul Ross Elementary School Principal Kristina Brunson.

“She’s very passionate, very caring and she is the true definition of a life-long learner,” Brunson said. “She’ll just research, and so no matter what comes up related to the special needs population of kids that she serves, if she doesn’t already know the answer or have the skills or doesn’t already know exactly what to do in the situation, she is going to immediately go research and find the answer. “Because of that, she’s continually finding new and creative ways to meet the needs of her kids at all costs. Nothing will take too long or require too much work.”

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