Meet Mark Simmonds, no ordinary school principal. Mark has not only seen it all but been it all. While currently the principal at Springfield Option Site (SOS), a residential, public school for behavioral health services, he himself was once a student at a similar school.
He acknowledges that his own experience enables him to relate to the students.
“I was once a student who was considered at risk. I was the product of a broken home, a child in the foster system, and a student who had always struggled academically. I relate to the students in more ways than one. I believe representation matters,” Mark said.
Fittingly, his school’s mascot at SOS is the phoenix.
“Seeing students succeed brings me the most joy. I love watching the transition. The analogy between the phoenix and our students is that of a ‘rebirth’ once they leave the facility. We hope our efforts have made a difference in these students’ success moving forward,” he said.
Teachers were a major influence in his early life
When Mark was a senior in high school, he chose to work in the Special Education classroom for his work study class because he knew a few of the students in the program. Once he began, he fell in love with the work and became passionate about pursuing his career in special education.
“Several educators over time encouraged me to become a teacher. In high school, I had a math teacher who was the sweetest lady. She would go over every problem that was assigned for homework from the previous night as there was someone who did not get the answers correct. She did this with the biggest smile,” Mark said.
Discovering the teacher’s school
To become a teacher, Mark needed a plan. While he began his studies in a community college, he knew that Missouri State University would be his top transfer choice for completing his bachelor’s degree in education. After visiting several other campuses across Missouri, Mark was also attracted to MSU’s reputation and legacy for teaching educators. The school also offered him the most scholarship opportunities.
“Both of my academic advisors (Stephanie and Judy) were also very helpful. My transition to MSU from OTC was met with several challenges. Those ladies worked so hard to get things in order so I could continue with the Special Education program.”
Pathways for Paras
During his time as a college student, Mark also worked as a paraprofessional, where he assisted the teachers at Springfield Option Site. “The experience I gained as a para most definitely prepared me for the reality of the classroom,” he said. “When I worked as a paraprofessional and a student, I learned so much about myself and my endurance.”
Missouri State University recognizes the opportunity that paraprofessionals gain from their experience working in classrooms and has developed a partnership with Missouri State Public Schools. The program is called Pathways for Paras and works with paraprofessionals to help them finish their degrees to become special education teachers. Since special education teachers are in high demand in the state of Missouri, this program was designed to work around the schedule of those who are already working in the classroom environment.
“If any person is interested in teaching in any capacity, I would highly encourage becoming a paraprofessional during your time,” Mark said. “I was more prepared for student teaching as a result and even more prepared when I became a classroom teacher. I was able to get experiences I would have otherwise not been able to receive had I not become a paraprofessional first.”
Mark gained confidence working in the classroom while he studied at MSU. Little did he know that years later he would return to become principal of the same school he worked in as a paraprofessional.
Returning to SOS
After Mark graduated and completed his Masters of Science in Special Education with an Emphasis in Autism Spectrum Disorders, he applied for a position at a high school district program. This is where he started as a special education teacher. His first classroom was similar in nature to the classroom he had worked in as a paraprofessional. After working in the teaching profession for several years, he also worked his way up in administration.
When he was offered the principal position at SOS, Mark reminisced about his early days as a paraprofessional during college. “Coming back to SOS reminded me of why I started in education in the first place,” he said. “My passion is to really make a difference in these students’, lives and shift the narrative on residential treatment facilities.”
“The career of teaching is rewarding yet tedious and is often overlooked. When you add Special Education to the mix, multiply that statement by a thousand. The greater reward though is watching some of the most challenged students persevere and transition into adulthood knowing that at some point in their lives, I played a role in their success. Being a Special Educator was one of the greatest decisions I made in my adult life.”
Story by: Brenna Davis