Ellie Brennan lives for what she describes as “magic moments” — those passing instances when she witnesses something click in a child’s mind for the first time.
As a learning specialist at Belmont Day School, the special educator works tirelessly to make moments like this happen for elementary students with learning differences. Believing strongly that every student has unique skills and abilities, every day she brings a personalized approach to helping young children achieve the most that they’re capable of.
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For Ellie, special education was a calling. Early experiences volunteering at summer camps and working in residential homes for youth with autism fueled her passion for helping young people. Seeking to apply her skills and experiences to a career in special education, Ellie heard about Lesley University’s Collaborative Internship Programs through a former student. The accelerated master’s degree program, with its flexible classes and extensive in-classroom preparation, seemed like a perfect fit.
“Lesley’s Collaborative Internship Program, where you're full time in a classroom and a full-time student, allows you to not only take what you're learning into the classroom, but also apply it directly to what you're doing with your students, which is how I like to learn,” reflects Ellie, who knew from the start that she wanted to be in a classroom as soon as possible.
During her time at Lesley, Ellie interned full time for one year in Brookline Public Schools. Working in a big school system helped her to get hands-on experiences in a range of environments. Her faculty-practitioners, who were all active educators, became a much-needed sounding board for sharing experiences and gaining relevant advice. She credits all of this, in addition to the program’s intensive nature, to being well prepared to handle her first year as a teacher.
“I think having the Lesley experience, and having it be so intense over a 12-month period, made me so much better prepared for the intensity and the chaos that is your first year of teaching,” laughs Ellie.
Through her wide-ranging experiences in the classroom, Ellie honed in on her teaching style early on. As part of her teaching philosophy, she asserts that no students are the same, and that teachers should adapt to each student’s individual needs.
“I think special education needs to be individualized and it needs to be flexible,” says Ellie. “I am a firm believer that if a student isn't able to access the general curriculum, that there are ways that you can alter it and change it to support them.”
In her role as a special educator, she strives to respect children’s individual strengths and weaknesses while also teaching them to become more resilient. Following this line of thinking, she discovered her current position at Belmont Day School. As a learning specialist there, Ellie has the opportunity to work with students in grades 3–5. She oversees reading groups, provides classroom support, and holds focus classes to help students with things such as test prep, organization, and executive functioning. Being able to work with the same students year after year, watching them grow and progress, is her favorite part of the job.
“When I see my students evolve in subjects that were really challenging for them at the beginning of the year, that’s when I feel that we're making progress,” reflects Ellie. “There are data and assessments that I give throughout the year, but what’s most important to me is confidence—my students’ confidence about what they're doing, their mindset about what they're doing, and their level of independence.”
No two student outcomes or two days at Belmont Day School are ever alike, and for Ellie, that’s what makes being a special educator so rewarding. “I love my students. They surprise me every day. No matter how well prepared I am with a lesson, their responses always surprise me, and I always need to bounce back in the moment and adjust as I go. I love learning from the students—they help me become a better teacher.”
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