In her former life as a coach, Terisa Liberty spent her time molding individuals into a cohesive unit, each individual athlete contributing to a team, working as one.

For the latter half of her 23-year teaching career, however, the goal has been just the opposite. As a special education teacher, she works every day to encourage students to break free and develop their individual potential.

“You develop that rapport with those kids and try to get them to see what their future could look like with a little this or that or extra hard work,” she said. “You get them to buy into it and just really make that difference that everybody talks about. We get into teaching to make that difference.”

Liberty discovered her calling by accident. Having burned out on coaching volleyball and basketball for six years, she was teaching science and pondering her next move. When the school district had a spot in special education open up at Joe T. Robinson High School in Little Rock, she thought she'd give it a try.

“If you can’t make it in high school, you’re going to have trouble in the real world with the daily life skills, communication skills, the functions you need to be successful,” she said. “Our goal is independence and successful transition to a junior college, technical college, four-year college or straight into the workforce.”

Liberty dove right into her new specialty and quickly found her stride helping high schoolers learn new approaches to old academic problems. She said she works with students at all different levels who are in the same class. For example, in a math class, she may have students working on algebra, geometry, consumer math or just counting money.

“We can’t always close the gap, but we try to figure out what skills we need to be successful,” she said.

“There’s always some kids that touch your heart, where you always have that little extra ‘mom’ pride.”

Liberty has seen a little bit of everything in her time in the classroom, teaching children with autism spectrum disorder, oppositional defiance and other learning challenges.

“We get some kids that won’t talk,” she said. “It’s not that they can’t, they just choose not to for whatever reason. We’re just trying to get them to break that communication barrier and have that self-confidence.”

Life can be difficult for the students she teaches, particularly among peers both in Liberty’s classroom and out in the world. So flexibility is essential for her as she works with a wide variety of students, personalities, abilities and attitudes.

“So you have to be flexible and patient because you do have the behavior problems. You have the kid who’s going to push your buttons and they’ll push other kids’ buttons. I try to get the other kids to say ‘Hey it’s OK, we know this one’s got some issues, don’t let them push your buttons to get you in trouble,” Liberty said.

The satisfaction of watching her students succeed in life far outweighs such challenges, however. Liberty's voice shines as she talks about former students such as one who struggled to read a newspaper who now owns his own welding business.

“There’s always some kids that touch your heart, where you always have that little extra ‘mom’ pride,” she said. “The one or two that you really bond with, you feel that maternal ‘my baby made it’ kind of thing.”

Do you know a central Arkansas teacher who works hard every day to inspire his or her students to learn, reach goals and dream? Click here and nominate him or her for one of our 2019 Amazing Educator awards!