By Rosa Garcia/El Inde
On a Monday, at approximately 6:15 in the morning, an iPhone alarm goes off. After a minute of the loud sound echoing in the small-squared room with blue walls, the alarm is finally turned off at 6:20. That’s when 29 year-old physical education teacher Francisco Ochoa begins his morning routine.
Instead of immediately getting dressed, Ochoa brews himself a cup of coffee and lets Chapo, the dog he recently adopted from the animal shelter, out while he sits in his small kitchen table. He scrolls through Twitter to see what’s happening around the world before running to his room to get ready, realizing that he only has a few minutes before he’s late.
Ochoa throws on a green shirt and a black pair of Adidas pants with the two white stripes down the side. “I gotta be comfortable because I’m a P.E. teacher, so I usually wear my Adidas pants and a normal T-shirt,” Ochoa says. “We’re doing it all virtual, so I gotta be more energetic for them.” His students are autistic and easily distracted, so when it comes to P.E. class, Ochoa tries his best to keep them entertained through a computer screen.
Classes at The Autism Academy for Education and Development, Tucson campus, have not always been virtual. Things changed for Ochoa on March 13, when he last saw his students in person. He told them that he would be seeing them a week later after their spring break, but that didn’t happen. Instead, all the teachers were informed that the students would not be returning for the rest of the school year.
“One of my first-grade students, Mila, came up to me and gave me her pink butterfly clip and told me to keep it until we saw each other again the next week,” Ochoa said. “That didn’t happen, but I still have it in my car for when I get to see her.”
They were told that classes would continue to be virtual the following school year and that the teachers had to come up with lesson plans for virtual classes. Ochoa had only been a P.E. teacher for a year, so when they told him that classes were going to be online, he didn’t know how he was going to do it.
“When Francisco first started teaching, he helped me out in my classroom,” fellow teacher Morgan Hatten said. “He didn’t have experience with autistic kids, so we had to show him how to be patient with them.” It still gets difficult for Ochoa because some of these students are unable to control themselves.
Back when Ochoa helped Hatten, one of her first graders wasn’t having the best day, refusing to pay attention. He had his iPad out and was playing games on it and when he was told to put it away, he yelled and said that he didn’t care about the class. When Ochoa went to go try to calm him down, the 7 year-old boy put his hands up towards Ochoa’s face and scratched him. “I felt my forehead start bleeding from the scratch, but I knew that I had to calm him down first,” Ochoa said. “When he saw what he did, he apologized and sat down.”
Hatten knows that the students have their bad days and often times they hurt themselves or others without meaning to. “If you’re going to choose to be a teacher at a school where there are autistic children, you have to know these things,” Hatten said. “It isn’t always going to be easy and you need to know that.”
On July 24, Ochoa returned to the academy along with the other teachers to discuss how they would make their transition to online classes. Ochoa visited his classroom for the first time since March and cleaned out his desk drawer while an iPad with a camera that follows movement got installed in his classroom.
Ochoa knows his way around the school and often helps the other teachers make lesson plans. “I started working here not too long ago and Francisco has always been a big help,” Lyndsey Trenka, a third grade teacher at the academy said. “My own kids are doing online school so I can’t stay long after school to come up with lesson plans and he stays to do that for me — even though he doesn’t have to.”
When the school year began in August, all of the teachers had to go to the school building and teach from their classrooms. Ochoa had to find creative ways to keep his students engaged by playing their favorite songs and jumping around the room with exercises he came up with, like hopping from one hula hoop to the other and doing jumping jacks. Some of the students still logged off within 20 minutes of the class, but he was not discouraged. Later, around September, that all changed.
The teachers were informed that some students would be coming in for in-person classes. “We missed the students, so knowing that some of them would be physically with us in class was great,” Trenka said.
When Ochoa was reunited with his students, they seemed happy to see them. A few of them walked up to him and told him that they missed seeing him in person. “They came right up to me when they saw me and they just said ‘Mr. Francisco, we missed you!’ It felt great,” Ochoa said. “Knowing that they were happy to see me means a lot.”
Even though they’re back in the classroom, some of the students refuse to wear their masks or they’ll take them off in the middle of class. Still, their teachers always remind them that they have to be wearing them. “For the most part, they’ve been listening,” Ochoa said. “I’m happy that they’re back, we just gotta keep them safe; keep each other safe.”