Kara Siemens is a 5th and 6th grade math teacher and math and science curriculum specialist at the Arkansas School for the Deaf (ASD) in Little Rock, Arkansas. She is also the sponsor for the school’s Upper Elementary after-school Robotics Club and Movie Making Club.
Kara recently achieved National Board Certification as an Early Childhood through Young Adulthood/Exceptional Needs Specialist with a focus on Deaf Education.
HSLDA: What was your childhood homeschool experience like? What’s your best experience from it?
Kara Siemens: I am the oldest of 7 children, all of us home educated. We were very active in our local Christian Home Educators Fellowship group. I remember many meaningful learning field trips and social events like monthly roller-skating, ice-skating, bowling, church youth group and more.
My parents often talked about having a servant’s heart, and I saw that lived out in their lives. My first memory of public service is when my mom, siblings, and I had a delivery route once a week for our local Meals-On-Wheels, delivering hot meals to elderly people in our area. I loved serving our group of recipients and visiting with them every week.
My mom is the reason I am a successful teacher today. I am dyslexic and struggled tremendously to learn to read. My mom devoted countless hours to my education and searched for strategies to help me learn. My light-bulb moment for reading finally came at age 9 when everything she had taught me started to click into place.
HSLDA: How did homeschooling prepare you for what you’re doing now?
Kara: My mom taught me that I could do anything through hard work and determination. She had very high expectations and pushed me to do my best. She observed my interests, passions, and gifts, and she encouraged me to explore them through volunteer work.
My own experience as a dyslexic student has given me a compassion and patience for working with my students. Most of my students have delays in their learning due to deafness and language delays. Some have additional learning challenges ranging from ADHD to dyslexia and disorders of reading and written expression. I understand their struggles and frustrations because I experienced them myself.
HSLDA: What inspired you to teach Deaf students?
Kara: My mom knew that sign language had always fascinated me, and she encouraged me to explore that interest. When I was 14, she searched out a service project opportunity for me: volunteering one morning a week at Happy Hands Education Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
At Happy Hands, I was able to use my experiences of struggling with learning to help the students and teachers, and I learned sign language right alongside the 3–6-year-olds I was serving.
One child I worked with was very easily distracted and disruptive. I took on the role of his ‘buddy’; I sat beside him and we ‘listened’ together. When it looked like he was losing interest or becoming distracted, I would ask him a question or point out something fascinating in the material he was learning. Both the teacher and others commented on how much more involved he was in class, and how much more he remembered, on the days I was there.
Volunteering at Happy Hands, which I ended up doing for 8 years, is how I fell in love with teaching Deaf and hard of hearing students. And it was only possible because I was homeschooled.
HSLDA: What is the most challenging thing you’ve had to deal with in your job?
Kara: There is never enough time to do everything. This is true on the teaching side, the lesson planning/preparation side, and the paperwork side of special education. I am constantly juggling more things than it is possible to accomplish in a school year, trying to prioritize and making sure my students have the best I can give.
HSLDA: What is your best experience as a teacher?
Kara: It has to be the light-bulb moments. I love playing a part in a student’s breakthrough moment when an impossible task becomes possible or a concept is finally understood—when they own their learning with pride.
Every year I teach a unit on photosynthesis, and I love how my students see the trees and plants on our campus in a whole new light. My favorite reaction was when a student brought a leaf to me at recess and asked, “So photosynthesis means this leaf is making its own food and producing oxygen right now!?” She then looked around the playground in awe at the trees, grass, and bushes making their own food and producing oxygen all around her. I love opening up my students’ eyes to the marvels of the world we live in.
I hope every student leaves my class believing in his or her ability to learn and be successful. I hope my students remember me saying, “You can do it, I believe in you, and I am proud of you!” Those are the moments that get me through the grind of special education paperwork.
HSLDA: What’s an example of how you’ve had a positive impact through your work?
Kara: One of my toughest but most rewarding experiences so far has been the year I spent working with Kurt (not his actual name), a 5th-grade boy who struggled with severe behavioral outbursts. His academic ability was significantly delayed, and he had very little motivation to learn. At the beginning of the year we were not making any academic progress and Kurt didn’t see the point of even trying because it was all too hard. I knew I needed to change my approach and find something that would reach Kurt.
I began to connect with him on a personal level. I found out that he was fascinated by anything related to vehicles and dreamed of driving a tour bus. I then began to gear his math questions toward skills a bus driver would need. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division all suddenly became useful tools to Kurt—because a bus driver has to be able to buy gas or calculate how far he could drive on a full tank. As Kurt became more involved in the learning process, he became more confident in his ability to learn. And because he had a goal for learning, he retained more information.
Kurt trusted that I cared about him; I know this because his outbursts in my class decreased significantly. He said he knew middle school would be hard, but he wanted to learn all he needed to drive a tour bus. It was great to see him excited about his future.
HSLDA: Why is it important for homeschoolers to be involved in public service?
Kara: I believe it is important for everyone to be involved in public service in one way or another—whether you’re homeschooled or not. Homeschoolers have the advantage of not being locked in to the traditional school-day schedule, so they may have more flexibility in the types of public service they can do.
Just look for the areas of need in your community. I would highly encourage young families to find a way to serve their community together in an ongoing meaningful way. I have many fond memories of delivering meals to the elderly people in my community and just spending time with them.
Many thanks to Kara for sharing her story! This interview is part of our Homeschool Helpers series, which highlights homeschool graduates and parents across the nation serving their communities as public servants. If you’d like to read more inspiring stories, click here.
Photo Credit: First image graphic design by Mark Thoburn; all other images courtesy of Kara Siemens.