Lauren Hannani culture editor
Forty-seven years ago, Molly Peterson began teaching special education to a small class in northern California. Now, after 17 years of teaching in this district, Peterson is retiring from her almost half-century career, with many more memories and values than when she first started.
Although a majority of her teaching has been focused on special education, Peterson has taught leadership classes, ASB, Link Crew and cheerleading over the years as well. In her first years working with students who have disabilities, Peterson quickly learned the value of appreciating every individual’s unique and admirable qualities.
“For a while in northern California, when I first started teaching kids with severe disabilities, it taught me the great importance of looking at everybody individually…and appreciating everything somebody can do instead of only seeing what they can’t do,” Peterson said. “And I think that’s true for everyone, whether you’re a gifted AP student who works really hard, or a student who struggles to be appreciated for who you are and what you can do.”
For Peterson, this lesson is one that extends beyond school grounds as well.
“That translates to everywhere in life, you know, at church, in my community, I look at what people can bring and utilize those instead of looking for ways to poke holes in whatever they’re thinking or doing,” she said.
This is not the only time Peterson has applied something she learned from school to her everyday life, since she says that she “learns more every day from [her] kids than [she] could possibly teach them.”
“Being with kids has kept me young,” she said. “So, I don’t want to totally excavate students and children from my life because I think that they are important people. They’re people that are still growing and developing, and have energy and excitement.”
However, the most rewarding part of the job for Peterson is not what happens in the classroom, but what follows afterward. In her experience, keeping in touch with her students after they graduate is one of Peterson’s favorite parts of being a teacher.
“A family of a student that I had previously is flying me back east this weekend to attend his graduation from college. And I have students from all of my years teaching who keep in touch with me,” Peterson says as she holds back tears. “That’s the type of connections I’ve made with kids and families that make teaching so rewarding. Teaching is much more than the curriculum. Teaching is about establishing a relationship and, in special education, often with kids who have a difficult time with school.”
Helping her students gain confidence and feel comfortable in the classroom has been a highlight in Peterson’s career.
“So school isn’t their favorite place; it’s about helping them instead of letting them continue to beat their head against the wall. [It’s about] regarding their learning to find a way to make a bridge, so that they can access their strength instead of being forced to look at their differences. That’s the plain fact,” she said. “You know, I wouldn’t be doing this for 47 years if it wasn’t rewarding.”
Special education teacher and Peterson’s fellow colleague Sharon Kirkpatrick has also noticed Peterson’s effect on students who struggle with the course.
“She helps some of the kids with the toughest problem achieve great success, and they love her for it,” Kirkpatrick said.
Peterson hopes that the special education department in the district continues to recognize all students’ accomplishments and further integrate special education and general education classes. In her words, “kids are kids,” and the “perfect image” people praise in Beverly Hills leads to a stigma toward students with disabilities.
“I have to say I’ve taught in a number of different districts, but when I first came to Beverly Hills, both in technology and how special education was viewed by parents families and the staff, it was very different from what I was used to in northern California. Exclusion and the put downs to somebody being in special education…it was a shock to me,” she said. “It’s gotten better since I came here, but I think there is still some of that going around. I have so many students who have defied the odds, showed that they are not their learning disability, and gone on to be very successful in college and in life. Everybody needs to recognize that that is possible. So that’s what I hope, is that the barriers will continue to break down.”
Although Peterson is retiring, she hopes to continue applying these lessons to her life and to work with students through tutoring. She adds that one thing she will always remember from her experience teaching here is that “there’s always another way” and “slowing down is not a negative.”
“I hope I’m remembered for my purple hair,” Peterson said. “And as someone who cared.”