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Reaching the Unreachables

When he decided it was time for a career change, John Rolf was attracted to the idea of becoming a teacher. With four children of his own ranging in age from 11 to 21, he had been immersed in the lives of kids for years, coaching his share of sports teams and serving as youth group leader at the Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio. Along the way, he found that he had a knack for reaching the “unreachables;” kids on the fringe who need a strong hand to help them reach their potential.

In January 2004, Rolf put aside his career as the owner of a car wash company and enrolled in the Teacher Education Evening Licensure (TEEL®) program at Notre Dame College. With an undergraduate degree in political science and a master’s degree in exercise physiology already in hand, he intended to take the necessary courses offered through TEEL® to get a license to teach secondary students.

Early on, Rolf enrolled in a class called Psychology of Students with Special Needs, a course required of all education students at the College. When he began the class, he did not have a firm grasp of what special education was. “I knew, but I didn’t know. I didn’t understand all the different kinds of kids who were struggling, especially the emotionally disabled (ED).”

While on a field experience for the course, Rolf realized he had found his niche in the field of education. This population of students, described as ED, defined the idea of “unreachable.” He was hooked.

Dr. Frances Ulrich, an associate professor of professional education and Rolf’s instructor in the course, recalls her early contact with Rolf as his field experience advisor. “I’ve never seen a student totally jump in and become immersed in special education as John has. He had a field experience where he was required to do 10 hours. He ended up doing around 30.”

As Rolf continued his exposure in the field, it was suggested he apply for an instructional assistant position at Fieldstone Farm in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. The 45-acre, fully functioning farm houses a therapeutic riding center with miles of trails and stalls for 36 horses. It also has a fishing pond. As an avid outdoorsman, it was a natural fit for Rolf.

At the farm, Rolf interacts with ED students who are enrolled in a vocational school. The students spend time in a classroom as well as out on the farm grooming horses, cleaning stalls, and other typical farm chores.

In the beginning, the biggest challenge for Rolf was developing an understanding of how to reach these students. “They have control issues, and it immediately taught me how to be much calmer; to de-escalate and let the words roll off my back. They’re just words.”

In his position, Rolf determines where his students are going and helps them establish a path to get there. On one occasion, a student decided he wanted a particular job. Rolf sat down with him and they created a simulated job experience with objectives, and the student then came to “work.” After the student had a behavior mishap, Rolf questioned the student, asking him “If you did this on the job, what would your manager do?” The student learned from this experience and became a model “employee.”

Rolf learned through experiences such as this that “This is a group that can be helped pretty easily. It’s not like a physical or cognitive disability, it’s emotional. There is great potential to help these kids.”

As a student of the field of special education, Rolf became attracted to the idea of using nature to help ED students. At Fieldstone, he has reached out to his students by building campfires with them, catching fish, and even building a sweat lodge on the property. Rolf believes that using a combination of academics and vocational skills helps him reach his students. Incorporating nature into the equation as well has a calming effect.

For Rolf, this exposure motivated him to combine his entrepreneurial experience with his love of hiking and backpacking. He hopes to ultimately open a wilderness school for kids with emotional and behavioral problems. He imagines that this program will begin with a summer consultation with students and parents followed in the fall by a week long expedition with just the students. The trip would emphasize team building and help him earn the students’ trust and respect. Then he would take the kids into the classroom after they have built trust with each other. Rolf believes that the key for working with ED kids is to get them out of their element. “They will latch onto an expert. In the wild, they realize that this is the guy who is going to keep a bear from eating me.”

Public schools reach many kids, but not all of them. The school Rolf imagines is different. To this he says, “Fine. Let’s create it. I’m a creative kind of person.”

This fall, Rolf will get the chance to do just that at Fieldstone Farm. He was able to obtain an Alternate Teaching Certificate which will allow him to teach while he works on finishing his degree. He was hired by Geauga County to be a vocational teacher with leeway to craft the program he envisions at Fieldstone Farm.

Amy Hickock Lauria ’93 is a free-lance writer and substitute teacher from Perry, Ohio.