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Graduation profile: Teaching and learning at the same time

May 11, 2018   /   by Damian Cristodero

Lynn Mai. Photo provided.

Some of the students with autism who Lynn Mai helps teach at Marshall Road Elementary School are nonverbal.

But Mai, who has been a teacher assistant at the Vienna, Va., school for two years, has learned to communicate with them by watching their body language.

“I observe them to see what’s bothering them,” Mai said. “I’ve learned about their body language and their expressions. I found out lots of behavior problems are not because they have a behavior issues, but they’re trying to tell you something. They are desperate.”

It is that kind of compassion and attention to detail that has made Mai invaluable at Marshall Road Elementary and an exemplary student who will graduate in May from George Mason University with a degree in human development and family science.

“Rarely do you find a student who is so focused and committed to her craft, in this case teaching students with special needs,” George Mason associate professor Bethany Letiecq said. “But what is also exciting about Lynn is her interest in engaging parents and families who have children with special needs, and creating those bridges between the school, family and the child.”

With an associate degree from a community college in Orlando, Fla., and as a single mom with three teenage children, Mai, 45, decided to return to school after the death of her husband.

Returning to school after so many years was not an easy decision, especially while juggling a full-time job. But with the support of her children—Jacqueline, 21; Sabrina 19; and Arnold, 16—she made the commitment and will continue at Mason in a master’s program for special education.

Lynn Mai, who came to the United States with her family in 1990 from Vietnam, said she originally chose Mason because it is near her Oakton, Va., home, but found it offered much more.

“They were willing to sit down and work with me,” she said of the university’s counselors and faculty. “They helped me transfer the credits I had and figure out what I wanted to do with my life and found me a route to get it.”

Mai said her Mason classes as well as her time at Marshall Road Elementary have not only made her a better teacher but more tolerant of people because of their circumstances.

“In one of my courses, we learned that and discussed it a lot,” she said. “People have their own problems they can’t control. We have to understand that. The way we help people is we have to find the underlying problem.”

Which brings us back to Mai’s work with students with autism.

“Sometimes you look at them through your view that when they’re moving they have a behavior problem,” Mai said. “But you shouldn’t look at it that way. They’re trying to communicate with you.”

Topics: Graduation