Jennifer Fisher – K-8 Dir. of Special Ed.
Jennifer Fisher: Bringing out the best of being different.
From the journal of: Jennifer Fisher
Position: Director of Special Education, K-8
Years in the Agora family: 14
Home base: Pittsburgh, PA
Some may say that Jennifer’s drive to influence lives as a special education professional was born with her—literally. Delivered at just 28 weeks old, weighing only 3 pounds and spending her first three months in a hospital, Jennifer started out life quite differently from others. But, through her own strength and will, coupled with care and support from people who loved her, she met every developmental milestone. Today, in Jennifer’s work, you can experience this same drive to support the lives of people overcoming challenges and hear her own early influence reflected in her explanation of why she loves teaching and being a director of special education.
“I love to see students become confident in life and learning,” said Jennifer. “I love nurturing and teaching so that our students understand the impact they can have on society and will always know they can be contributing and successful members of their communities and the larger world around them.”
Other influences in her professional development come from her family, especially her parents, who did not have opportunities for education along the traditional timeline but, nonetheless, pursued education later in life. Her mother studied for her associate degree when Jennifer was a teenager, and her father was in his 40s when he went back to school to become a physical therapist assistant after working most of his life as a miner. Her parents’ extraordinary work ethic and the value they placed on ongoing education shaped Jennifer into a lifelong learner who enthusiastically embraced formal schooling, less traditional learning opportunities and the ongoing education found in life’s many “classrooms.”
The journey to Agora
Long before she entered the teaching profession, Jennifer was drawn to special education. When special education programming was introduced in her middle school, Jennifer volunteered to tutor some of the students and support their integration with the full student community—a practice she continued until she graduated high school. Then, wanting to nurture her passion for special education—supported by her parents’ open-mindedness about embracing all—Jennifer jumped at the chance to travel to Jamaica the summer of her senior year. She spent two weeks teaching children in a small Jamaican community how to read; it was an amazing experience for her as a 17-year-old.
Jennifer received her teaching certificate and BA in special education from IUP and completed her student teaching experience in both a traditional brick-and-mortar school and a psychiatric hospital, before job shortages in Pennsylvania led her to take an opportunity in California—where she spent seven years working with students who were medically fragile. She completed her graduate work at University of San Diego, Chapman University and University of Pittsburgh.
“I loved it. You always question, ‘Do I make an impact on students?’ But there is no question about the impact students make on me. In fact, my son’s middle name is in memory of a student of mine who died at 14 of muscular dystrophy. His parents put my picture over his heart, and he held a photo of the entire class.”
After seven years in California, Jennifer returned to Pennsylvania to be closer to her parents and grandparents and to have her two sons, Cameron and Calix, grow up surrounded by family. While working at another school, she met the director of special education at Agora and was hired the next day. She started as an elementary special education substitute teacher in the winter of 2008-2009 before transitioning to a full-time position the following fall.
Being the difference
Jennifer’s compassion, love of teaching and learning, and drive to make her difference make her a valued and beloved part of the Agora family. Moreover, because Jennifer spent the first part of her special educational career in community-based, “face-to-face” environments, she has brought to the Agora table a unique perspective on ways to create the same type of personal relationships in a cyber setting. In fact, Jennifer’s perspective, experience and innovative solutions for her own transition to cyber teaching have made Agora’s special education programming even stronger than what can be found in more traditional settings.
“I was worried about the transition at first because I had so many rich experiences in more traditional in-person schools. But I used a lot of what I learned in brick-and-mortar schools to enhance our online special education programs. We ensure that our teachers have the resources they need to make the greatest impact on our students and families. Agora teachers are so dedicated and work so hard to form relationships with their students and families. The impact our special educators make is powerful and amazing. We have evolved and changed so much, and we’ll continue to grow and progress. I cannot imagine doing anything else now.”
Jennifer also makes a difference by continuously ensuring that she and her colleagues excel at effective written and verbal communication. In addition, she is dedicated to maintaining the rich diversity that exists in the Agora community of faculty, students and families, as well as the continuum of highly individualized services that allow the school to provide educational excellence across all lines of socio-economic status and educational need.
“One of my missions is to help uphold Agora’s diverse leadership team in special education and the collective ideas that help us to make the comprehensive programs that we have. With these things in place, we can seamlessly transition students from brick-and-mortar to cyber and take any IEP written by any school and equally implement it in the cyber setting!”
The next chapter
For Jennifer, what comes next looks as varied as the differences that exist among all Agora students. And she is excited to be a part of the evolving special education programs and individualized support services that will meet the ever-changing needs of today’s K-8 youngsters—and tap into the new tools and technology that are continually shaping the world of education and society. However, as much as things vary, there is one constant that will always provide the solid and beautiful foundation of Jennifer’s impact at Agora—her firm belief that every challenge, no matter how big or small, can be conquered.
“There’s a solution to every problem. No matter what the issue, we will figure it out. Whether you are a student with an IEP, a teacher or a parent, we can work together to solve any issue and achieve greatness.”