Interview with Dr. Nicoline Ambe, Special Education Teacher, Public Speaker, and Bestselling Author
By Jill Kapinus, July 2015
There’s no magic formula for being a great special education teacher, Dr. Nicoline Ambe says, but it certainly helps to add a healthy dose of passion for what you do. Ambe has many roles in the education sphere, but none of those positions suffer from a lack of enthusiasm and determination that a child can achieve their highest potential, despite any learning disabilities—or perceived disabilities—with which he or she is labeled.
As a young woman, Ambe emigrated to Canada from the African country of Cameroon, where she had earned her Bachelor’s degree. She earned her Master’s degree in law from Queen’s University in Canada, going on to earn her Doctorate degree in law from Osgoode Hall Law School, a part of York University in Canada. And she didn’t stop there—she earned a second Master’s degree in American legal studies from Whittier Law School in California. Although her background is heavily weighted in law, Ambe decided to earn her teaching credential and became an elementary school teacher, where she is a special education teacher in the resource specialist program. In order to teach special education at the elementary level in California, she has earned the California Level II Clear Teaching credential and the Mild to Moderate Disabilities[i] certification.
Dr. Nicoline Ambe has earned an authoritative role in the education industry as a best-selling author of Above & Beyond: How to Help Your Child Get Good Grades in School, and Position Them for Success in College, Career, & Life. She is also a public speaker on related topics at schools, libraries, and conferences and has appeared on Fox News and NBC News channels to discuss tips for parents on how to raise an academically successful student. Her efforts and expertise has been rewarded with many teaching excellence honors and awards from school principals in her time teaching.
Enjoy our full interview with Dr. Nicoline Ambe to find out how she is inspiring and motivating students—and their parents—to strive for success.
GradSchools: Discuss your background and education. What led you to teaching and then to become an authoritative voice in the education industry?
I grew up in a small African Country called Cameroon. Like most children born and raised in Africa, my life was heavily defined by stereotypes and gender role expectations. In hindsight, these expectations limited me in numerous ways. Fortunately, I loved to read. I was an avid reader! It was this love of reading that positioned me in the top 5% of my class every single year that I was in school. By age 30, I had 4 degrees, including a PhD in law.
After completing my doctorate, it felt natural to continue to pursue a career in education. So I became an Assistant Professor of Law at several colleges and universities in Canada and the United States. After 10 years of university teaching, I decided to switch careers to elementary school teaching, which seemed like a crazy idea to many of my friends and family. The decision was mainly based on my family circumstances at the time, but it turned out to be a great decision!
Soon after I started teaching elementary school, I realized that many of my students who had been designated as having a disability really did not have a disability. All they needed was a lot more support and structure from home in order to raise their performance in school. I felt that the home environment played a huge role in limiting what these children were truly capable of achieving. As controversial as these statements may be, the truth is that from my experience as a teacher, many home environments do not provide students with opportunities to reach their highest potential. So I decided to do something about it. I started writing books and talking to parents about how they can improve their children’s performance in school by implementing specific things at home.
GradSchools: You hold a PhD in Law. Why did you choose to earn that degree and how does it contribute to your work as a special education teacher?
In Cameroon, where I studied for my Bachelor’s Degree, there were only 3 degree options to pursue at the university. Students had to choose between Science, Law and English. I chose law. My PhD in law is definitely helping me teach special education students. It’s helping me engage my students in high level and higher-order thinking. It is helping me raise my expectations of them, and raise their expectations of themselves. I don’t accept excuses from them, especially if they have clearly haven’t put in the effort. My degree is also helping me encourage students to stay in school and pursue higher degrees. If I can do it, they can do it, too.
GradSchools: You work with both special education and non-specialized education programs. How are the two different and how do you approach the differences?
I mainly work with special education students, although as a Resource Specialist, I also teach students who are in general education classes. As a resource specialist, I am considered a special education teacher, and my general education students are also designated as special education students by virtue of the fact that they have been identified as such. So I mainly work with special education students.
GradSchools: What is the most important part about special education that you try to impart in your public message?
The most important part about special education I try to impart in my message is that ALL children can learn when given the right structure and support systems at home. A child’s disability need not be a setback for them. We have heard some amazing stories of people who had been labelled as having a disability but are now performing extremely well in life because they implemented specific actions, made tough decisions, pursued positive choices and as a result their lives have changed dramatically. Being labelled as having a disability is not final. Anyone can improve their lives and achieve success if they implement specific actions and choices. For young children, parents play a huge role in helping their children achieve. So I say never allow a label to define you, otherwise I would not be writing this.
GradSchools: How did you become such a public figure in the special education arena? What are some choices and elements that helped you early on in your career?
One word - PASSION. I am driven by an unquestionable belief in the power that lies within every child. I have no doubt that with effort, focus, strategy, and determination every single child can succeed in school. My message is designed to show parents how to help their children achieve academic success. Never to settle for anything less because their children have been labelled as having a disability, but to continue to expect more from their children, and of themselves.
One choice that helped me was discipline. I refused to quit. The journey has not been easy. The principles of success remain the same, in real life and in school. To succeed you have to work, and work really hard. You work hard because you have a goal to achieve. If your goal is not strong enough, you will quit, but if your goal is strong enough you will hang on tight, and keep giving your best and digging in.
GradSchools: Talk about your coaching and training. When did you get to a level that you felt that you had something to offer to those who are early in their careers?
When demand for my service rose, I realized that I truly had something of value to share. I was getting requests to speak and train parents and students on making good career choices. One of the things I try to do is to paint a very vivid picture of the future for my students. I show them why it’s important to stay focused in school and pursue a career that fulfils their professional, emotional and financial aspirations.
GradSchools: What is the most rewarding or exciting thing about the work you do?
The most rewarding thing about the work I do is receiving phone calls, text messages, and emails from parents and students who tell me how much my message has changed their lives. I once received a text message from a 5th grade student who informed me that she had “A’s on her math and social science tests, and that she loves school.” I love to see such transformation in students. They make my journey so much more meaningful. I also love to see the excitement in parents who discover a new ways to relate to their children and help them excel as a result of my training.
GradSchools: What are some avenues in life that have been opened to you through your career as an educator?
My career as a speaker is definitely the result of my career as an educator. It came out of my response to a need, and me finding a solution to what I saw as a problem facing my special education students. It is because I have first-hand knowledge of student performance in the classroom that I am able to authentically provide solutions to parents. I know what it takes to succeed in school. By virtue of this “insider” knowledge as an educator, I am able to create solutions that positively impact the lives of families all over the world.
GradSchools: In your opinion, do you think it’s a good time to go into special education teaching? If so, why?
Oh yes! It’s good time to go into special education. Anytime is a good time to go into special education teaching. Increasingly many kids are being labelled as having a disability. Many times, the disability is real, but at other times what the students really need is a little encouragement, guidance, and structure at home in order to excel. There is a need for teachers who can empower children to excel, and work with parents to ensure that they implement good practices at home to help children excel. There are also several students who are academically challenged in school as a result of their disability, so there is a need for teachers who can teach these students and make a difference in their lives.
GradSchools: Do you think there are any specific qualities that help someone thrive in special education? If so, what are those qualifies?
Definitely! Some of the qualities that will help someone thrive in special education are the willingness to serve and the understanding that when you serve your students, the rewards also come to you personally in various ways. It also helps to be patient, and to truly understand why you are doing the job - to help your students become better human beings and to thrive in school and in life.
GradSchools: What advice do you have to students who are interested in pursuing a special education teaching degree? What are the biggest challenges, and how can students prepare for them?
Pursuing a teaching degree in special education is a great choice. It presents you with so many opportunities for change and transformation, not just in your students but in yourself as well. You must have the heart to work with students who are different from you. You must have the patience to understand what their needs are and offer your best solution to those needs. You must be patient, show genuine care for your students, and help them excel.
The biggest challenge in working with special education students is their varying learning needs. Every child has a unique learning style, so as a teacher you will make accommodations to support their learning. The pace of learning could also be a challenge. Some students will learn faster than others, so you would have to adjust your teaching pace to accommodate your students.
Sources: [i] ctc.ca.gov/credentials/leaflets/cl808c.pdf
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