Karen Krikorian in front of her classroom. Photo by Madison Stewart.
Karen Krikorian’s life as a special education teacher has changed since graduating in May. She knew she always wanted to be a special education teacher because of her brother Michael Krikorian, 20, who has Asperger’s.
“Michael and I have completely different personalities” said Krikorian. “With his Asperger’s, he will tell you like it is, and it’s not always very nice, so, it’s hard for us to bond.”
Krikorian said having a brother with Asperger’s is eye-opening, but her family does not treat him any differently. “You would not know he had Asperger’s. Anyone would just think he is a straight-forward, tells-you-how-it-is, kind of person. My brother definitely does not hold back.”
Krikorian grew up in the Bay area of San Francisco, where her mother and brother still live. Her parents divorced when she was 10, and she has not seen her father since she was 13.
“It was hard growing up without a father figure, especially for Michael,” said Krikorian. “But I am thankful for my mother and everything she has done for us.”
Krikorian’s mother, a kindergarten teacher in San Francisco, gave her a glimpse into teaching life.
“I realized I wanted to be a special education teacher because of my brother,” said Krikorian. “With his Asperger’s, it was hard watching him grow up with no friends, so I wanted to make sure I could do something for other kids.”
Krikorian earned her education degree from the University of Mississippi and is now working as a special education teacher in the South.
The 22-year-old starts her day by waking up at 5:15 a.m. Her early morning begins with a shower, a heart-healthy breakfast, followed by feeding her black cat, Princess Tiana.
She usually has most of her teaching stuff ready to go, making it easier to leave the house at 6:10 a.m. and arrive at school 10 minutes later.
When Krikorian gets to school, she unlocks her door, and turns on the lights to her larger classroom. Her classroom is fairly large, including a small living room with a couch for kids to have relaxation time, a small kitchenette to cook, and a white board with few desks for teaching.
After setting her stuff down, she turns on the Keurig by the kitchen and does a room check to make sure everything is in place. Her teaching assistant, Jacquita Campbell, greets her with a good morning as they settle in for the day.
Group 1 of her students begin to file in around 6:30 a.m. with morning smiles. She has a total of 13 students. Six students are Group 1 who come to class from 6:40 a.m. to 10:55 a.m. Group 2 has seven students who come from 9:55 a.m. to 1:40 p.m.
Krikorian starts class with Group 1 by doing morning coffee when her kids take coffee orders from other teachers, make the coffee with the Keurig, and deliver the coffee.
“The money from coffee sales goes towards our account, which enables us to go on community-based instruction trips every Friday,” Krikorian said.
After morning coffee trips, her two assistants sit with students while Krikorian leaves to make copies, put materials together and organize the lesson plan. As she walks to the teachers’ lounge to make copies, she said each student has different challenges.
“Most students in special education classes do not know they are special, but a lot of mine do, and they struggle with that,” Krikorian said. “Their level of ability ranges from pre-kindergarten all the way to fifth grade.”
When she returns to the class, Krikorian asks students to come to the kitchen and pay attention. She tells students they are going to learn how to make cookies.
According to Krikorian’s lessons plan on Tuesdays, her students learn how to do daily living tasks students find fun. Today’s task is to learn how to make cookies and clean it up.
She walks to the mini fridge and pulls out a roll of chocolate chip cookie dough. She asks students if someone would like to read the instructions. Jordan Alexander raises his hand immediately. He reads the instructions, and together they make chocolate chip cookies.
While they were in the oven baking, Krikorian taught students how to clean up using sensitive cleaning ingredients. They used wipes and soap to clean the counter top and the dishes.
At 9:55 a.m., Krikorian takes her students to lunch. She asks them to line up against the wall, and the class leads the way to the cafeteria with the fresh baked cookies in hand. One student, Victoria Reid, asks to hold Krikorian’s hand as they walk to the cafeteria.
While her helpers take care of the students in the cafeteria, Krikorian goes to the teacher lunchroom where she can get a salad and a hot meal. After lunch ends, all 13 students meet in the classroom for an activity called Panther Pals where peers spend time with students for 30 minutes. During the activity, Krikorian walks around the room interacting with many students and their Panther Pals.
“We do games, activities, or go on nature walks,” said Krikorian.
Today, she has the kids play board games since it is cold outside. After Panther Pals, Krikorian said goodbye to the six students from Group 1. She leads them out to their parents, who are waiting carside to pick them up for the day.
When she returns to the classroom, the second group of students do an afternoon coffee run for the teachers around school. Krikorian lets her students do most of work. She stands by and watches over, helping a few hold the cups.
When she and her students return from handing out coffee around the building, she teaches them a different daily life task. According to Krikorian, Wednesdays are one of her students’ favorite activity days because they learn how to cook.
“I want my kids to learn daily life skills because they are capable of doing that,” she said. “There is no reason why they should not be given the chance to learn like everyone else.”
Her second group of students learned how to iron clothes. Krikorian brought each of the kids a shirt to practice ironing on. She began instructing by showing them how to iron a shirt with the heat on low.
“It helps to have two helpers in the classroom,” said Campbell. “We are able to assist our students better and give them a hands-on experience.”
Each student was able to iron a small piece of clothing with the help of Krikorian and Campbell. She taught them how to fold the iron and clean up their messes before they head home.
The students packed their bags and lined up as the bell rang at 1:40 p.m., indicating the school day was over. Her students gave her hugs as they said goodbye.
“I enjoy working with Karen,” said Campbell. “She has such patience for these kids. We always have the best time at work.”
Once her students left, she cleaned up the classroom and sat down to plan her day for tomorrow. She gathered plans for the special guest coming to class tomorrow to teach her students how to bake a cake.
Krikorian peacefully sat there, eating a snack before going to coach the dance team at school.
“I am involved with the varsity dance team at school,” she said. “I am a sponsor, so I do not help with the choreography, but I will do other tasks…”
She walked to the gym where practice was being held. Krikorian’s involvement with the dance team first involved communicating with parents whose kids were absent from practice. Then she scheduled some of the events coming up, including the dance team performing at halftime for a hockey game in Southaven.
She said she is also in charge of payments and has to attend all performances, including varsity basketball games on Tuesdays and Fridays. Once dance practice ended, she left school to grab dinner before returning to attend the basketball game tonight.
At dinner, Krikorian said she is earning her master’s degree online. During her free time, she works to get a lot of her graduate homework done. After dinner, Krikorian stops by her apartment to change clothes, then heads back to school.
Right before half time started, Krikorian gets the dance team together and prepares them with the other coaches. The dance was five minutes, and the basketball team won.
On the days she does not have after school obligations, she heads home to cook dinner and do homework for graduate school or watch TV with her cat.
“I enjoy my nights with my cat because my days are always busy, so it is nice to sit on the couch for a bit and watch TV,” she said.
Krikorian said she arrived home last night, ate dinner and wrote a three-page paper on an article review about a study in early childhood education technology and sharing. Tonight, she will return home from the basketball game a little after 8 p.m. She feeds her cat dinner and starts to get ready for bed since she has an early morning. She said her week involves the same routine.
An Ole Miss graduate, Krikorian is enjoying the adult world.
“I’m happy with what I do,” she said. “I get to see the best students ever and work with amazing people,” she said, as she gets ready for bed and preps for another day of teaching.