The outline of Cassidy Klein’s smile crinkled her mask as she spoke of her English students at the A. Quinn Jones Center. Behind her, a small letterboard read, “It’s not where you came from, it’s where you’re going that counts” — a mantra her classroom embodies.
Klein, a 25-year-old high school English teacher, received the 2022 Division for Emotional & Behavioral Health teacher of the year award. The DEBH is an international community of educators that dedicates itself to the success of students with or at risk of emotional and behavioral disorders. Klein traveled to Orlando Monday to receive her plaque.
Klein won out of the seven states that make up region 8: Florida, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi.
For the last four years, Klein has built long-lasting relationships with her students at the center.
Handwritten posters hang on the walls, desks with the chairs attached fill the room and a single bean bag chair rests in the back corner. A typical high school classroom scene, except only four students sat in Klein’s sixth period and only one in her seventh. These students weren’t always there year-round.
The center serves students who need to make up credits, were kicked out of their previous school due to behavioral issues or have been in and out of the juvenile justice system. Students grades six through 12 must stay for a minimum of 45 days. Nearly 60% of the center’s students require Exceptional Student Education, a curriculum for students with disabilities and conditions that affect their ability to learn in a conventional classroom. Many students have an emotional and behavioral disorder diagnosis, Klein said.
Some days include crying, stomping or being cussed out, but you can’t take it personally, Klein said. Instead, you focus on what the students need.
Klein adapts the district curriculum to better accommodate her students.
“I put a big emphasis on writing your story,” Klein said. “So we do a lot of very personal writing about past, present, future.”
She assigns an essay at the end of each year — a legacy story. Students write about their hopes for the future and the obstacles that shaped them.
Aunesti Debose, an 18-year-old at the A. Quinn Jones Center, is the only student in Klein’s seventh period on Thursday. Out of all the chairs in the room, she sat on Klein’s black bean bag chair.
“She actually wants to help us become somebody in life,” Debose said. “When I come to her class, she’s always happy. She’s the same person every day. You can tell she actually wants to help you.”
Klein graduated from the dual certification master’s program at UF and earned a degree in general education and ESE K-12. One of her professors and special education graduate program coordinator Ashley MacSuga-Gage nominated Klein for the award.
“She, right off the bat, asked and wanted to work with our students who truly struggle the most and who tend to get the least resources,” MacSuga-Gage said.
Because Klein chose to work with students with emotional and behavioral disorders and thrives in that environment, MacSuga-Gage felt she embodied the criteria for this award.
“She doesn’t boast about what she does, but she certainly deserves it because she is more than qualified and she really goes above and beyond,” MacSuga-Gage said. “She’s just honestly a rockstar.”
Other teachers at the center recognize her effort too.
Klein gave up her planning period to start a new reading program for students, runs the school’s journal and stays in touch with students who have left the program years later, Jane Wilson, A. Quinn Jones art teacher said.
But Klein doesn’t see these acts as going out of her way — providing a well-rounded education is what she loves.
Running into a student who now succeeds at a traditional school or watching a student walk dressed in cap and gown fills her with joy, Klein said.
She learns from her students as they learn from her. She admires their resilience and determination to graduate high school despite past traumas.
“They’ve kind of taught me that no matter what you went through in your past, there’s always more,” Klein said.
She repeated the quote on the letterboard behind her, “It’s not where you came from. It’s where you’re going that counts.”
Contact Emma at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @emmabehrmann.
Emma is a second-year journalism major with a minor in Spanish. She is the education reporter this semester. She's from Palm Harbor, Florida, but her second home is the gym. When she’s not writing she’s either deadlifting, squatting or benching.