Amanda Thorner was a child growing up in Sharpsville, Indiana, when the importance of special education hit home.

Her little brother Stephen had developed a seizure disorder that turned conversations into stumbling blocks. Information became hard to recall, concepts more difficult to grasp. Many spoken words occurred to him slowly, if at all. And where the 6-year-old boy was often at a loss to communicate, his parents and four siblings were similarly unsure of what to do about it.

“Watching him go from a typically developing, active boy to one who started struggling to speak and learn was really confusing and heartbreaking,” she said. “It changed the dynamic of our family.”

Amanda Thorner is seen in her third-grade classroom.

Thorner, seen in her classroom at Noble Crossing Elementary, did a full year of student teaching while pursuing a double major in elementary education and special education at Teachers College.

Then Stephen’s big sister got to thinking. Knowing that her brother was visually cued — he loved movies and video games — Amanda Thorner used highlighters to create a visual schedule of his homework, employed flash cards to help him learn ideas and terms and broke down his assignments into smaller, more digestible pieces.

She was 12 years old.

“His strengths were definitely utilized in the areas of visuals,” Thorner said. “Verbally, he struggled to maintain information, but if you could make it more visual notes, pictures, et ceterathat definitely helped him.”

The frustrations, the hopes, the little victories of this experience, they all set Thorner on a course to be who she is today: a 2003 Ball State graduate and an award-winning special resources teacher in a Noblesville, Indiana, elementary school.

Three years ago there, at Noble Crossing, she helped introduce a teaching strategy to her district that moved students from a predominately special education setting into classrooms full time with other students their age, whom teachers refer to as typical peers.

That move also introduced a teaching style to the school district called co-teaching, a classroom setup in which two teachers rotate students in and out of small groups that vary from subject to subject.

Before co-teaching, a daily shuffle

Before co-teaching’s introduction at Noble Crossing, special education students spent their days shuffling back and forth between special education classrooms and other classrooms.

Gina Mertens, a teacher who worked with Thorner to introduce co-teaching at Noble Crossing and still works alongside her, said one drawback of the previous system boiled down to the churn of students and their teacher in and out of different classrooms.

“We realized that (Thorner) coming in now and then was not what was best for kids and for teachers because, if she walks in in the middle of a lesson, she doesn’t really know what’s happening before the lesson,” said Mertens. “If we’re together all day, we’re both using the same language, we know exactly what our goals are, we know where we’ve been, we know where we’re going.”

Thorner echoed that sentiment, saying that the old system was holding her students back not only academically but socially.

But being in the same classroom with their typical peers all day gave them a sense of belonging and has improved collaboration among the two groups.

“It was a huge benefit for them to be part of a classroom community and not feel like they’re here, there and everywhere all of the time,” Thorner said. “And when we were researching this, that’s what kept coming out: the academic but also the social successes that were being seen.”

Amanda Thorner is seen working with a student in her third-grade classroom.

Thorner reviews standardized test results with each of her students to decide on any changes to a child’s learning plan. Also, students work with Thorner during annual parent-teacher meetings to present plans that include their classroom strengths and challenges, plus a look forward.

Since Thorner and Mertens led the district’s first co-teaching classroom three years ago, all 10 district schools have adopted at least one. Noble Crossing has three.

The classroom’s introduction and its spread to other district schools were among the reasons the district named Thorner its 2015-16 teacher of the year.

Helping students more

Another reason, according to the district, was her use of data to improve student performance. Behind that dry-sounding observation is a rich glimpse of Thorner’s commitment to her students.

One example of that data use involves a math and reading assessment students in her classroom take three times a school year. After each test, she sits down, one-on-one with each student, to go over the results, which are used in deciding on any changes to a student’s goals in a learning plan. Such plans, commonly known as an Individualized Education Program or IEP, are required for special education students in public schools.

The students are similarly involved in an annual meeting where they effectively work with Thorner to convey information to their parents about their strengths and challenges in the classroom, along with a plan to address their needs.

“They actually present these plans. And we deepen and elaborate on these plans with the parents, as well,” she said. “There’s kind of that team/community feel, that everybody has that buy-in to what our next steps are to help that kiddo be successful.”

Data points to progress

All of this interaction, Thorner said, gives students a sense of ownership over their academic progress, something that she sees in one statistic: Her special education students are improving their performance on the math and reading assessments more quickly than others in the same class.

“One of the most exciting things with me, with co-teaching, is my students have not only grown in confidence in that gen ed setting, but they are outperforming the typical peers in their growth data and displaying an increase in their passion for learning,” she said. “So it’s not about, ‘Are we doing what everybody else is doing?’ It’s ‘Are we doing what we need to do to make ourselves be better learners?’ ”

Three students are seen in Amanda Thorner’s third-grade classroom.

Thorner was only a few years older than her students when her path to teaching began to take shape. One of her younger brothers began struggling with a seizure disorder, a situation she responded to with homemade flash cards and a visual homework schedule that she created with highlighters.

Thorner credits her Ball State experience as being elemental to who she is now as a teacher. She recalls the full-year of student teaching she did because of her double major in elementary education and special education, a number of practicums with elementary school students at Burris Laboratory School and elsewhere.

She also fondly remembers Nina Yssel, a Teachers College professor in the Department of Special Education, as someone who translated academic concepts in a way that helped Thorner in the field.

“She was very knowledgeable and could take that classroom piece and kind of help put it into perspective and help you make those connections when you were in those real-world experiences.”

Mention Amanda’s name to Yssel, and the former student’s face jumps to the front of the professor’s mind as someone who was well on her way to professional success.

On a more personal level, professor and former student recall Thorner coming back from summer trips to England with a brand of tea bags for Yssel that were then hard to find in the U.S.

“That was before Meijer and all the grocery stores here started selling PG Tips,” said Yssel. “It was always so hard to get. Of course, now you can get it on Amazon and everywhere. So that was a special connection we had.”

A rigorous, rewarding job

When Thorner looks at her 13-year career since graduating from Ball State, she doesn’t see much separation between the hardest and most rewarding parts. Each child whose life she tries to improve comes to her with unique strengths and weaknesses.

Working with families to help those children grow becomes a puzzle to solve. That’s where the sense of reward starts to kick in: building relationships, setting expectations, celebrating successes when they come and trying again when they don’t.

“We’re really focused on the growth mindset here in Noblesville Schools and that power of ‘yet,’ like ‘I can’t do it yet,’ ” she said. “It’s a challenge to really identify those true needs. But it’s also rewarding when those needs are filled.”