Staff Highlight: Tamara Kozak
Tamara Kozak: Harnessing the power of social-emotional learning to build bright futures
From the journal of: Tamara Kozak
Position: Special Education Teacher, High School
Years in the Agora family: Three
Home base: Bethel Park, PA
From a very early age, Tamara not only knew she wanted to be a teacher but that her particular calling would focus her care and attention on helping youth in special education. Nurtured by a mother who was a school nurse during the school year and worked in camps for children with disabilities during the summer, Tamara had a continuum of role models and experiences demonstrating the impact she could make by pursuing this path. She began as a youth by volunteering with her mother at camps so she could see first-hand what it meant to interact with special education students. Here she learned the importance of, first and foremost, creating a safe environment that was understanding of the trauma that created a barrier to learning for special education students.
“My goal is to provide a safe, supportive space for students to learn and grow where if they can state their feelings, we can help regulate them,” said Tamara. “If you have this safe, respectful environment, then learning can begin and skills can be developed such as communicating with peers and adults, executive functioning skills, empathy, advocating for themselves and others, and active listening.”
The journey to Agora
After she graduated from Duquesne University with degrees in elementary education and special education, Tamara taught special education to elementary school students in the Butler Area School District. During this time, Tamara lost both of her parents, within weeks of each other. This was a life-altering event for her in more ways than one. At the age of 21 she found herself starting her out in life as an adult without parental guidance and nurturing. The sudden loss of both parents gave her a first-hand realization of the significant ways trauma could impact life and learning, and this redirected her career in education to one that would be more supportive of students challenged by grief, loss, and trauma. She added school counseling to her educational resume and for a time taught special education in London, where her son was born. She returned to the U.S., added a daughter to their family, then took time off from teaching to be a full-time mom. Once her two children were in school for full days, Tamara felt the tug to get back to special education. Her search led her to Agora, where her background in counselling and special education made her the perfect fit for teaching social-emotional learning. While Tamara was the ideal fit for Agora, Agora also proved to be the idea fit for her.
“I love teaching special education—teaching social-emotional learning at Agora is truly my dream job and a perfect match,” said Tamara. “Agora has afforded me the opportunity to use my life experience and education to make a difference. Connecting with the students, seeing them learn and grow and using the skills I am to teach is the most rewarding feeling in the world.”
Being the difference
As a special education teacher specializing in social-emotional learning, Tamara’s early influences—as well as those she seeks and embraces every day—can be seen every moment she’s interacting with students, families, and coworkers. In every way she emphasizes the importance of understanding and building social and emotional skills as part of the learning curriculum. The ways in which she draws on the trauma that shaped who she was and how she approached life in order to help shape the lives of her students are truly unique—and effective. Through this she gives students an understanding that empowers them to work through grief, loss, or trauma so they can learn in ways that work for them.
“Many students who experienced trauma have the fight or flight instinct—and that is a major barrier to learning,” said Tamara. “It makes it difficult for them to pay attention and retain information. We understand this and help these students to advocate for themselves and use their words, and this empowers them. I also respect their boundaries and they learn as we work through real life scenarios that allow them to put their learning into practice.”
Tamara is also proof positive that virtual learning does not only work, but in many ways works in ways that are superior to in-person models. For her and her students, making connections turns out to be far less difficult than many expect. “I have found overwhelming success with getting to know them and connecting on levels I wasn’t able to face to face. It’s a little less daunting to type in chat how you’re really feeling.”
The next chapter
Tamara’s next chapter at Agora is constantly being written on the pages of her own continuing education—both formal through classes, seminars, and similar opportunities, as well as the informal learning that comes from interaction with her students and Agora colleagues. Tamara improves herself as an educator and a social-emotional specialist as a member of the Agora Student Assistance Program (SAP) team, a member of the Agora positive behavior intervention and supports (PBIS) core team, and as a RENEW facilitator. She also takes continuing education classes at every opportunity and has a strong reputation for seeking and discovering fabulous new community resources that can enrich the Agora experience.
“From my first interactions with Agora, I knew it was the place I felt at home. This feeling has continued—I belong here. And I will continue to provide support for students categorized as having emotional disturbance, putting in the necessary hours, providing the empathy, safe environment, and education that makes a difference. I love seeing my students go on to the next step in life. They have all become a special part of me.”