Westmont Magazine Empowering Special Education Students to Learn in the Community of the Classroom
A passion for teaching students with learning challenges helped Kristen Augustine Baldridge ’91 earn a Teacher of the Year award from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) this year. Only 22 educators in a district with 22,000 teachers received the honor, which recognizes “expertise, success, creativity, devotion to their students and commitment to the teaching profession.”
A special education resource specialist at Clover Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, Kristen seeks to empower special education students, build an inclusive community and maintain relationships with her students. “There are so many good teachers out there,” she says. “Throughout this whole process, I’ve felt very humbled.”
Kristen entered Westmont as a psychology major and planned to become a psychologist. Then she discovered a love for teaching and special education through an internship with a resource specialist teacher at an elementary school in Carpinteria. She also volunteered to help special-needs children at St. Vincent’s in Santa Barbara.
“Through this internship, God made my path clear,” she says. “I realized that special education would utilize my passion for both psychology and education. I’m so grateful for the professors who connected me with the school.”
Kristen earned two teaching credentials at CSU Northridge and later a master’s degree there. She taught her first special education class with a group of LAUSD students from at-risk environments. Confronted with the different needs and challenges of each student, Kristen began learning how to manage their behavior and address their social and emotional needs. The experience deepened her commitment to students with learning challenges.
Today, Kristen works directly with 20-25 special education students every year, helping them learn in general education classrooms and providing their teachers with extra resources and support. “My position empowers these students to stay in mainstream classes and helps them and their classmates learn from each other,” she says. “The classroom is for everybody. Every child can learn if teachers clearly believe in the child and bring out their best. Rather than being isolated, special education students can grow through this community. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens.”
Kristen views her position as a God-given opportunity to encourage these children—and help those around them recognize their value in new ways. “Rather than viewing these children merely as people who need our help, God has given me the opportunity to help others recognize their strengths and gifts and what they bring to the table.”
Although COVID-19 has presented new challenges, Kristen has brought a positive, problem-solving attitude to every situation. She believes the pandemic has challenged teachers to more adequately address their students’ social and emotional needs by bringing them to the surface. Both students and families have struggled to adjust to learning online, and students have missed being in the classroom. Special education students find it especially challenging. Kristen has consistently sought to maintain personal connections and a sense of community.
During her small groups on Zoom, she focuses on social and emotional learning by incorporating various games and time for sharing. For example, she may begin the day with icebreaker games and incorporate academic games throughout the session to keep the students engaged. She proudly says that the school has kept children and parents connected and supported. “Ultimately, we’re trying to empower everyone to have the best attitude by integrating coping strategies into our online instruction,” she says. Kristen believes relationships have grown stronger in many ways. “Throughout this stressful season, I’ve witnessed growing appreciation between both parents and teachers as they realize the challenges of homeschooling,” she says. “I’ve heard from several parents who want teachers to know how much they appreciate us.”
Kristen married a fellow Westmont alum, Bryan Baldridge ’91, a double major in natural science and economics and business, who works as a finance specialist. Together, they’ve raised two sons, and the older one, Jordan, graduated from Westmont in 2017 with a degree in history.
She continues to be passionate about her work. “I’m so blessed that God has allowed me to be an advocate for those with learning differences and challenges,” she says. “It has been such a privilege to help learning communities view them in a positive and empowering way."