SOLES Alumna Spotlight: Tameah Chandler '11 (MEd), Special Education

Tameah Chandler
begin quoteIts really indescribable to say how SOLES has influenced, inspired, and empowered me to be a special educator today.

Tell us about your degree program and why you chose SOLES.

My undergraduate degree is in psychology from Fisk University. After undergrad, I was preparing to go to law school and I had applied to USD’s School of Law as well as other law schools. Additionally, while studying for the LSAT, I had started working with children who had autism. And I really loved it. So, I decided to explore special education. (Yes, in the middle of me applying to law school.) I was beginning to feel drawn to education and I thought it was something I should pursue. I was looking at USD and it seemed like a pretty good school to attend as well as the program seemed good. I ended up applying. Honestly, it was one fast decision. So, it was the only graduate school that I had applied to. I thought to myself “If I get in then, I’ll go. If I don’t, law school it is.”  Well, I ended up getting in, but because I had applied a little off the regular application time, I missed the scholarship deadline for my application. I tried to call to inquire about funding, but I didn’t really get anywhere. So, I decided to drive down to SOLES. Once I arrived, I got completely lost in the parking lot for no good reason. When I finally found the elevator, I ended up running into Assistant Dean Linda Dews. She recognized me as the lost woman in the parking lot so the ice was broken. I began asking her questions about who I could speak with about scholarships and funding and she said, “That’s me!” So, I ended up going to her office and having this whole conversation. She gave me great scholarship information and that summer, I found myself at USD with a great amount of support.

Who was your favorite professor during your time at SOLES?

It was Dr. Ammer; definitely Dr. Ammer. It’s not that he was just knowledgeable, and very helpful, and available when we needed to speak to him, I just liked his personality. I thought he was very eccentric and a really interesting person to know. I thought, “Well if this is what Special Ed teachers' personalities are like, then alright, this might be cool.” He’s just a different person and not generic. I was like, “I appreciate you!” Ha ha! While I really appreciated him as person, I was grateful that he was very helpful academically; if I went to him and I needed understanding on something, he was supportive as well as very responsive on email. He was very open when he had his office hours, and, specifically for me, in my last semester at USD I was struggling and trying to finish up my thesis presentation. I wasn’t sure how I was going to present it or how it was going to be, and he suggested that I connect the different mediums class that I took with my thesis content. This class that he referred to taught us learning through graphic novels, outside classroom experiences, and presentations programs outside of PowerPoint. And I thought, “That’s a great idea!” He was very helpful in making me see how I could connect the classes that I took not related to special education with my recently acquired special education knowledge and combine them for my thesis. He was the best!

Do you have a class that you’d say was your favorite during your time at SOLES?

I have two favorite classes, but my number one fave was the Special Ed Law class. I loved, loved, loved that class. It helped me see the other side of special education and not just the classroom teaching and curriculum aspects. It just helped me combine my advocacy and social justice bent with my love and passion for supporting the needs of special students. I really, really loved that class for the knowledge and the information that I got. I didn’t receive everything--it was definitely an intro class--but I really appreciated having that class. It gave me a bigger picture of what I should be thinking about when it comes to these families and their rights, as well as the school district and their rights.

My other fave was the class where we studied different ways of learning. We would learn through graphic novels, through experience, or through different presentation platforms. That class I remember very clearly because we had an assignment that made us have an experience where we would be an outsider or something like that. We basically had to put ourselves in the position where we were the only person that was like us. Then we had to write about the experience and what we learned and how that relates to the students we may teach in the classroom. I’m a Christian, so I chose two experiences that were vastly different from who I am. I chose to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous and a drug addiction support group (and, to this day, I have never done any drugs) and then I decided to go to a Buddhist experience. I actually reviewed the paper I wrote earlier this year. I was reading it and I vividly remember my experience. I, low key, reflected on it and I feel this is probably why I was able to go to China and work with the children and families there. That experience put me in the position to better understand that it is okay to be different and there are somethings you can’t control about being different. But there are things you can learn about other people who are different from you, even when the majority of them are the same and you’re the outsider. It was a very cool class to be in and I learned many different things. I learned that I love graphic novels and most people hated them, then I learned that I could be on my own in a place where nobody was like me, and still love it! I learned different presentation skills, presenting in different platforms and using the internet and media in a different way. That class really opened up a lot of different ideas and creativity inside of my mind for teaching and I am better for it. 

Tell us how you completed the international experience requirement.

I went to Japan with Dr. Inoue. There was a psychology research class that everyone had to take. You could take it in the spring or in the summer. Most people didn’t want to take the summer course because the summer class was a two week accelerated class. But the second week was in Japan and I thought, “If you want to take us to Japan, sign me up!”  It was my first time out of the country but it was a catalyst for more. I ended up going to Thailand later on in the year with my church, and now I live and work in China. Ha ha! Essentially, it was a two week course that we had to do action research. We had to put together the research proposal and a final research proposal presentation--I think the class was too short for us to really actually do the research we had proposed but I still learned a lot. The first week of the course was a lot of learning how to find research studies that support your theory as well as learning how to connect with people, schools, programs, organizations that may support your research ideas or offer places for the implementation of your research. The second week was in Japan collaborating with Japanese students in a university program and presenting our research ideas. We had collaborative meetings with the Japanese students as well as within our own team. We talked about each other’s research and thoughts. Every day, we heard about research from students in both schools. From what I remember, it was very cool to see other students who were participating in different majors of study. Some of us were Special Ed teachers and others weren’t. It was very much a class for different majors, or curriculums studiers. I remember going to see a primary school in Japan. I also remember noting the cultural difference in this Japanese primary school to the US primary school. In this school, everybody stands up and does their pledge, and everyone stands up for the teacher to come in and I think there’s one president of the class. I also remember seeing a girl who had Down syndrome and wondering about Japan’s supports for children who have disabilities or learning differences. It was a wonderful experience. Oh, yeah! I remember our first day in Japan. We arrived for the morning studies and lectures. It was early and all of us USD student were fighting sleep to stay awake during the lecture but as we looked around we saw the Japanese students sleeping. We were appalled and shocked. While we were working really hard to pay attention and stay awake, they’re sleeping. However, it turned out that, culturally, the Japanese are not offended when someone does this. If I remember it correctly, I think they think “Oh that person is tired, they need their sleep. It’s okay,” Talk about culture shock! Here, in America, we would never do anything like that because it’s rude to us. Culture shock came for the Japanese students, as well. They were very surprised at how vocal we were and how easy it was for us to give our opinion. In their culture, this is not typical. It can be disrespectful to push back on what the professor has said. American culture teaches us to challenge and to question. I got a lot out of that experience. I fell in love with Japan and I’m so glad that I went. 

Where was your favorite place on campus?

This might sound bad, but I really liked the cafeteria! Ha ha ha! Fisk, my undergrad school, is a small school and we had a limited selection of food in the cafeteria. When I went to USD’s cafeteria. I was amazed. I remember walking in saying “What! We have lemon meringue pie? And soup?” The cafeteria was so big and so pretty. Campus in general is just a beautiful place. I mean, it’s just really pretty. But, I really appreciated the cafeteria experience. I know that’s not academic but I really appreciated the beauty of USD in general. All of it, from the cafeteria and the cafés to the SOLES building, I really liked the atmosphere. In the café, sometimes we would have study groups there. But because I especially enjoyed the cafeteria, I would just go there because it was pretty or for some lemon meringue pie. Ha ha ha! I was just excited about the vastness that was the cafeteria. The beauty. The variety. It was an experience for me.

Were you involved with any student organizations on campus?

Sorry to say but, no. I worked a majority of the day and I would come to class in the evening. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a morning person. I would put all of my energy into being in class in the evening time especially after work. If I had one regret from my time in SOLES, this would be it. I should have explored more of the different student groups or clubs. I probably would have gained a richer experience had I done that. In my last semester before graduating, I did get invited to the Black Graduation Ceremony. I wasn’t going to go but I ended up going at the last minute. My mom was upset with me but it was a very last minute decision. I ended up really appreciating the ceremony. I got a stole for graduation and it’s actually hanging up in my room now. I remember thinking, “Man, I probably should have been more involved.” Honestly, if I could go back, I probably would have been a part of at least one group. It’s hard to believe but I’m more on the introverted side. I take a long time getting involved with groups and clubs. So, at that time, I think I was just trying to study, do well, and work. I just had one goal and that was to make at least one friend in class, which I did. I made a few friends actually. Overall, I had a good experience with classmates and enjoyed my professors. But, if I could change anything, it probably would be to engage more and explore opportunities to connect with more people as well as learn more new things.

What is your favorite memory from your time at SOLES?

My favorite memory would be Japan; my roommate, our small class, and that experience were awesome. We all got really connected. I did a lot of learning, understanding, and growing in knowing peoples’ differences and their mindsets. I also started to recognize what we’re passionate about when it comes to teaching. My favorite memory was being in that class, doing the research proposal, and then being in Japan.

Tell us a little bit about your journey since graduating from SOLES.

My career path has been kind of different. While attending SOLES, I was working with a little boy as a 1:1 support in his preschool. I ended up really loving the aspect of the 1:1. I also really enjoyed talking to the teacher and giving support and creative ideas. At the same time, I had a practicum requirement to fulfill. I had to teach an entire class and plan their lessons and such. It was here I realized that I didn’t get the same joy and passion that I did with 1:1. Coming out of SOLES, I knew that I wasn’t going to get the credential to become a classroom teacher, but I wasn’t quite sure where I would go either. After graduation, I ended up working as an independent contractor for private schools, as well as working in substitute positions as a SPED aid and SPED paraprofessional in the public schools. I worked with children who had ADHD, cognitive delay, and autism. In the private school sector, I was working with different families and working 1:1 with their children. I was a support to the teachers and they loved me. Even the director of the school loved me and she allowed me present to the teachers and teach them about special education, autism, and discuss SPED supports for their classrooms. The director of the school became a mentor to me and through her mentorship, I ended up accepting an overseas job in China. I was also working in ABA Therapy or Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy supporting children with autism. When I found the opportunity to do ABA in China, I asked my mentor if this was a good idea. She said “Tameah, you have no kids, you’re not married…why not?”, and I thought she was right and this is probably the right time to try this out.

That specific ABA job didn’t work out, but what happened is it opened up my mind to working outside of America. Since I was working at a school that was predominantly Asian and, if you know me, I love Asian people and Asian culture. Well, I love people in general but I have a very specific affinity towards Asian culture. So for me, I thought this made sense. I was living my best life while I was in Japan back in school. Ha ha! I did some research and found a PDF file that had all these different schools and programs that support students with disabilities all over the world. It basically listed out all these different places by their country. I randomly picked China and then Shanghai and I picked two programs and emailed them. I wrote, “Hi, my name is Tameah. I want to know what you are doing in China when it comes to special education. I’m trying to do some professional growth and I just want to know what’s going on there.” One of them responded asking who I was, where I was from, and my SPED background. I told them who I was and they asked me to send them my resume. I sent them my resume and then all of a sudden I was in an interview! I ended up getting a job as a program leader at a therapeutic program for children with special needs in Shanghai.

I moved to Shanghai in September of 2016 and I have lived and worked there ever since. Now, working and living in Shanghai, I spent the first two years there working as a program leader overseeing a staff of people who served children with special needs. Initially, I was the leader that had the most children--I think I had at least sixteen children that I was responsible for, and they were on two different campuses--so it was a very different job but it was, at the time, fulfilling. I learned a lot about Asia, China and the structure for special education in Shanghai. I learned that China as a whole is behind when it comes to support and needs for children with disabilities. Shanghai and other big cities have a lot more and they’re growing. China is in the stages of growing and putting out more policies and more structures in place to support children of various learning styles, differences, and needs. Working as a leader with different children with different learning styles and overseeing a staff was very challenging. Not with just the cultural differences--because a lot of my staff members were Chinese--and not just the language barrier, but in general just the way of thinking about disabilities. There are so many different aspects you don’t think about when you grow up in a certain culture and how you learn about what “learning” means and what that looks like…and what “potential” means. A lot of the children in our program, if in America, would never be in a full time program like that. They would be in a regular education school and/or regular education class. But, because China and other places around the world are behind (comparatively to America), when it comes to special education structures, supports, and policies, some children may not be supported well in international schools or in the public schools. Many just can’t keep up. I’ve learned a lot about China. I’ve learned a lot about myself and how much I really care about ALL people. I was used to thinking about poor in terms of lacking wealth. Many of these families are very well off and can afford or are funded by their companies to attend our program (our program is quite expensive) but because of the lack of opportunity for them to go to certain schools, they end up having to do things they wouldn’t necessarily have to do if they lived somewhere else. My mind shifted and I really started seeing “poor and disenfranchised” a little bit differently. I now interpret what it means to be desperate for your children so differently than before.

Because of this, and the heartache I saw and experienced, I decided to go back to school. Now I’m on a path to get my PhD in Education Leadership and Policy with a concentration in International Education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. My hope is to take what I learn about policy creation and policy consultation across the world to not only help create policies and plans for children with disabilities but to be influential in education for all children. My heart is in Asia, China, and their community. You know, it’s really hard because you have to keep the mindset about their culture as being beautiful and wonderful as well as understanding that these issues are not something to pity or address like a savior. Also, I don’t want to go there and say, “I have this policy because you all here are doing it wrong.” That’s not what I want to do either. It’s my hope to support an even more beautiful expression of the world. I want to be a part of the beauty, the loveliness, and the greatness about this culture and the people. This is how I want to influence education policy. So that’s my path.

Are you still working for the company you were working for in China, but remotely now due to the pandemic?

Yes, I am working remotely right now from San Diego. I was working as the program leader for two years and I ended up having a really bad knee injury there. My second year was kind of disjointed so at the end of that year’s contract, I didn’t renew to go back to that position. I needed to focus on my health and I needed more flexibility. I did renew my contract with the company, but as a SPED consultant and an ABA behavior therapist. Through that, I’ve been more involved with the community, different international schools, teacher trainings/presentations, and consulting. Even in the therapy program, I’ve been involved in working with staff member training and supporting behavior problems of children throughout the program. The first two years were wonderful and I loved them, in the sense that I learned a lot, but I realized that (of course) I’m not the classroom teacher and that was more like classroom teaching. So, I’ve switched over to the specialist role and ended up going to different schools, different teachers, different classrooms, and working with different children all over Shanghai. I really love that! I was even part of a team that was assessing the learning supports of a Chinese school. I was in the meeting with the head of that school and a couple of my colleagues. We were presenting their results, information, and giving feedback on how they can improve. I really, really loved being in that meeting and being in that space. Being a part of understanding the deficits and seeing the needs, and also being a part of the solution, has really inspired me to go back to school as well. So, I am working remotely because I’m able to consult with families as well as write articles.

Now that I am beginning a PhD program, I cannot renew my contract in China after this year. As much as I love working in China, and I hope to return, it’s better for me to focus on one thing. There’s no ill will with my leaving the company, so maybe the door for them might be open again or maybe for something else. I’ve encountered different people and made connections with all different kinds of people who aren’t necessarily connected to the company, but they’re connected to other schools, they’re connected to the government, and they’re connected to here and there. I have learned more of the art of networking, which I didn’t really have at USD. I have made small connections with people in different spaces. I’m not looking to do the same exact thing that I did when I left at the beginning of the pandemic; I’m looking to go where the need is. Of course I love Asia so that could be in China, Japan, Korea but I am open to others countries or even here in America. My goal is to be open to the possibility of being an influence in special education and do it on a world changing level.

How would you say your education from SOLES impacted your career and future career goals?

I remember in the beginning, wondering how everything would go and being nervous about being successful. But finally learning, going, studying, and having all of these opportunities, helped me learn that I love teaching and that I am very creative. And I think the program ignited a bigger passion for special education in me. I had it at the start, but I think going through USD’s program and being at SOLES in general just deepened that passion. Plus, being given the opportunity to go to Japan and realizing I love being international while understanding special education really inspired me. It’s really indescribable to say how SOLES has influenced, inspired, and empowered me to be a special educator today.

What advice would you give to a current student in the special education program at SOLES?

Take all of the opportunities that are afforded to you to take. Wherever you can go globally, go. I think you should learn more about yourself and get inspired. Go somewhere that you won’t always have the opportunity to go. Taking all of the opportunities that are afforded to you from SOLES, whether it’s getting involved with student life or student programs or traveling with your classmates—you should take it. Being mentored by your instructors—you should take it. The things that I regretted the most were not getting more involved with the professors; getting to know them and networking. But, putting those things aside, one thing that I thought I did do well was looking at the opportunities that I felt were scary and taking them anyway. A lot of people were afraid to take the Japan research class because it was two weeks and they felt like it was going to be too much difficult work. It was a lot of work, but I loved it. I believe you should challenge yourself in that way. Just because it’s kind of scary doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. If you’re scared, then do it afraid. I think doing things afraid—that are good opportunities—is what I would recommend for any student at SOLES, and any student in the special education program. Don’t let your fear stop you. Look at the opportunity, see it for what it is, and try.

Do you have any final thoughts to share?

I want to express my deepest gratitude to all of my professors and Linda Dews, because I don’t think I did it well enough. I’m very grateful for my learning experience and time at SOLES.  

Contact:

Amanda Gonzales
amanda@sandiego.edu
(619) 260-4539

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