Abigail Wagner sat at her desk in the corner of her classroom at West Forsyth High School answering a reporter’s questions, but every so often she shot a glance at her students.
She couldn’t help it. Wagner’s job teaching in West’s department of exceptional students demands that kind of watchfulness.
“It’s nonstop,” she said.
But Wagner can’t imagine doing anything else.
School: West Forsyth High School
Years teaching: 2
Subject: Special education
The Forsyth County native has wanted to teach special education since she was a student at Settles Bridge Elementary School. She grew up around her cousin, who has autism, and Wagner was moved by her aunt and uncle’s devotion to help her cousin receive the necessary resources and interventions.
Wagner participated in the peer facilitator programs at Settles Bridge, Riverwatch Middle School and Lambert High School, then graduated from the University of Georgia in 2017 with a degree in special education. After a year of student teaching at West, a full-time position opened, and the school offered her the job.
The Forsyth County News’ December Teacher of the Month talked with us about surviving her first year teaching, her favorite thing about teaching and her favorite things other than teaching.
FCN: What was your first year as a teacher like?
Wagner: “It was tough, I'm not gonna lie. I felt a little bit like I was on an island in this room, just because not very many people do this kind of classroom. But you find your people and you get your mentor and just latch on to your people you want to be with.”
FCN: Who were your people that helped?
Wagner: “I had one mentor assigned to me, and she's really my work mom. I love her to death. Ms. [Gina] Duque. She is a wonderful person. She really taught me a lot about everything, between the paperwork and how to communicate with the parents and all of what goes into [the job].
“She ended up leaving our department. Another one of my teachers kind of stepped into that role and helped me out, Ms. [Julie] Manning.
“They're my people. I go to them with everything, between work questions and non-work questions. They really helped me survive my first year. I wouldn't have been able to do it without them.”
FCN: What do people not understand about teaching special education?
Wagner: “It's nonstop. Even while I'm doing this interview, I'm stopping to make sure that students don't have seizures or that they're engaging in self-injury or aggression, or making sure that one student is doing math and the other is doing their reading. It's constant.
“You leave work at the end of the day, and your body is tired, but it's more your brain. Ms. [Amy] Taylor and I were talking about this the other day: we just want silence for the first 30 minutes after we get home, and that just kind of helps reset your brain. After that, ready to go again.
“But it is mentally tiring in the moment, and I think a lot of people don't quite understand what goes into our day. We are constantly doing a million things at once.
“Which is good. That's the way I like it. I thrive on a lot going on. I would be so bored at a desk job all day. This is my kind of job. But it does get tiring at times.”
FCN: What’s your favorite thing about teaching?
Wagner: “I love the kids. I love them so much. I can't imagine doing anything else with my life. Truly, I go home every day and am so happy.
“Some of my students may be working on letter recognition still. Some of them may be working on multiplication. When you see the child finally get it, and it finally clicks with them, it is such a big celebration. Even for what might seem like the smallest accomplishment is so big for them.
“It feels like Christmas morning every time they accomplish something, so it is very rewarding.”
FCN: What are your interests outside of teaching?
Wagner: I love to read. I read all the time. I just finished reading the Harry Potter series. I know, I'm late to the game. But I read a wide variety of books. I'm actually about to start a new book, "Small as an Elephant."
“I hate cooking; loathe it. But I love baking.
“Also hanging out with my family a lot. My grandma lives nearby, so I like to go spend time with her. And my parents live nearby as well. And hanging out with my friends.”