It’s the first day back from spring break at Lawrence High School, and some of the autistic students in special education teacher Jake Thibodeau’s Interpersonal Skills class are a little restless, going around the room talking about vacations.
In a few minutes during the middle of the 50-minute class, one student has several verbal outbursts. Thibodeau, along with the rest of the class, composed of 10 special needs students and 10 student mentors, don’t seem to notice.
As the outbursts become more frequent, a couple of the mentors approach the student and talk with her briefly but aren’t able to calm her.
Thibodeau steps in, shoots a finger in the student’s direction and with a big smile says jokingly to the student, “Don’t press your luck.”
The students laugh, and the outbursts stop, for the most part.
“I just have a lot of understanding and patience for these kids,” said Thibodeau, a Lawrence native and second-year teacher.
Watching Thibodeau, 35, relate to the students with jokes and animated gestures, it’s difficult to imagine his description of himself as a student at Lawrence High School nearly two decades ago.
“I was always a struggling student,” he said. “I was very anxious in school and acted out a lot because of it. I was kicked out of a lot of classes.”
For the past decade and a half, though, Thibodeau has dedicated his life to making the Lawrence schools a home for special needs and autistic students.
With a laid-back, but dedicated approach, Thibodeau makes quick connections.
“Jake approaches students as individuals and tries to understand their backgrounds and their personal situations in life,” said Erika Greszler, a special education paraeducator at Lawrence High who’s worked with Thibodeau for several years. “I think students pick up on his genuineness pretty quickly... .”
Last year, Thibodeau and some of the other special education teachers revamped the school’s interpersonal skills program for autistic and special needs students. The goal was to help autistic students feel more accepted in school and the Lawrence community.
“My kids aren’t usually the ones asking people to prom or getting asked to prom,” Thibodeau said. And “they’re not on sports teams.”
In essence, it’s a challenge for autistic students to get the full high school experience.
But Thibodeau said the interpersonal skills program has changed that. In the first hour of the school day, 20 students meet for the class period. Half the students have special needs — mostly autism, and the other half are student mentors matched up with a special needs student.
On the day back from Spring Break, Thibodeau goes around the room, prompting the autistic students to talk about their vacations or current events. It’s a way for students to work on social skills during the first part of the school day. During the rest of the day, Thibodeau is responsible for assisting eight students — whom he calls “my kids” — with schoolwork, and other skills, such as shopping and cooking.
“Jake has set the tone of our program to be one of educating students with a “whole-person” approach,” Greszler said. The program helps students “feel safe, respected, and capable of not only existing in day-to-day life, but thriving in it.”
The mentor program stretches much further than the classroom.
Thibodeau organizes outings to sporting events or movies, and it’s not unusual to find him at an after-school game or track meet with several of his students.
“I want to give them access and a sense of feeling and belonging to this school,” he said. “They feel like they’re Lawrence Lions.”
Thibodeau’s commitment to including his students in typical high school events has rubbed off on the mentors, said Rydell Blann, a Lawrence High senior and mentor in the program.
“They are my friends now,” said Blann of the students he’s mentored. The mentors and the special needs students can often be seen socializing at lunch or outings, something that wouldn’t have happened without the mentor program, Blann said.
“Just giving them the opportunities to have the high school experience,” Blann said. “We’re both in the same community.”
‘He gave me confidence’
When Thibodeau graduated from Lawrence High in 1995, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, so he stayed in Lawrence, working as a paraprofessional at Free State with special needs kids. He loved the work and began to mature.
“It took me a while,” he said. “I didn’t have any purpose.”
Today it’s Thibodeau having a big impact on his students, but he credits a former student, Ryan Walker, with pushing him to go back to school to become a teacher.
Walker had a serious heart defect, and though he didn’t suffer any cognitive deficits, Thibodeau was assigned to monitor Walker’s physical condition during the school day. “He just taught me so much,” Thibodeau said. “He just cared about everybody.”
Walker died in 2003, his senior year.
Before his death, Walker had a serious talk with Thibodeau about his future.
“He told me flat out: ‘Jake, you need to be a teacher,’” said Thibodeau, who starting taking courses at Johnson Community College, then Kansas University. A few years ago, Thibodeau finished a master’s degree at KU in special education.
“Because he said I could be a good teacher, that gave me a lot of confidence,” Thibodeau said.