Teacher Spotlight: ESD occupational therapist Becky Vaara.

January 12, 2021

Becky Vaara

Teacher Spotlight: ESD occupational therapist Becky Vaara.

By Kate Krieger-Watkins, staff writer.

Teacher Spotlight is a presentation of Shelby State Bank, www.shelbystatebank.com with offices in Ludington, Pentwater, Shelby, Hart, Hesperia, Manistee, Montague, Whitehall, North Muskegon, and Fruitport. 

HART – Knowing that educational system expects so much of students as soon as they enter school, West Shore Educational Service District, occupational therapist, Becky Vaara takes a lot of pride in what she does on a day-to-day basis to help her students succeed.

“I think it’s so tough to be a student nowadays,” she said. “So much is expected of our preschoolers and kindergarteners on up. Some students just aren’t developmentally ready to write, or they struggle to read because they have a visual perceptual concern. Some struggle to sit still in their seats, need to fidget, or need to have their sensory needs met in some way to be able to attend and focus on learning. I can’t imagine being a student today in general, much less if I had a delay in an area that made learning harder. Occupational therapy can work with students and teachers to make students as independent as possible at school and help them achieve at their highest level.”

Vaara is a 1992 graduate of Midland High School and is now in her 17th year of working for the WSESD.

She received a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University in 1997. In 2016 she earned a master’s degree from A.T. Still University in occupational therapy. 

Based out of the Oceana County office for the WSESD, Vaara has worked all over the three counties that the ESD serves: Mason, Oceana and Lake.

“I started at Oceana ISD in 2004,” she said. “I have covered every school district at some point except for Ludington.  So, Mason County Central, Mason County Eastern, Baldwin, Walkerville, Pentwater, Shelby, and Hart (and some that have closed since I started).  Currently, I see students directly at MCC, MCE, and Pentwater, and complete evaluations for Shelby and Baldwin.”

Vaara said she knew she always wanted to go into education, watching her parents as teachers growing up, but she wasn’t sure in what capacity after she became employed at a hospital in Midland.

“When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “Both my mom and dad were teachers, and I was interested in the education field. I then started working at the hospital in Midland, and decided I really liked the health field too. Occupational therapy is a nice mix of health and education and I love what I do.”

Not only does Vaara get to work in both fields that she loves, she also gets to work with a wide range of students and abilities, which makes her job always interesting and changing.

“Occupational therapy is fun,” she said. ‘I work with students with a variety of strengths and weaknesses and try to find fun ways for them to improve fine motor skills, motor planning skills, hand/finger strengthening, visual-perceptual skills, and meet their sensory needs. Occupational therapy encompasses so many areas that I am always challenged to learn more and it is never boring.”

Working with students isn’t all of what Vaara does and she stated that if she could change one thing about OT in education, she stated that she’d love to see more time working with teachers and staff to help implement preventative strategies and universal supports for all of her students building-wide, not just in that student’s individual classroom.

With students either attending school in-person or attending virtually, Vaara stated that she, too, has had her ups and downs navigating meeting her student’s needs while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Having the schools closed this past Spring was hard,” she said. “I missed seeing my students in person every week. It was a lot of work to try to get in touch with each family and determine how they wanted to receive services. I learned I really needed to learn more about technology. And made a billion copies to send out. It is definitely easier to see students in person. Seeing them virtually works, but it is hard to see every nuance that I typically correct. Did they change their grasp midway through? Were they within half inch of the line or quarter inch?  Did they turn their thumb down when cutting when the sheet was off video? I have enjoyed safely reconnecting with students. I think the biggest struggle since being back is knowing you have to be more flexible than you’ve ever been in your life. I have been in quarantine and worked to continue to reach out to my student’s at schools or home. Some of my students have been in quarantine or have decided to complete school remotely because of health concerns. Every week is different. Every week a different district, or school, or classroom is back to virtual. So right now, it’s all about meeting the needs of the students in whatever way works for them, their schools, and their families.”

With a shortage of occupational therapists across the country, Vaara stated it’s a great time to think about OT as a career, but she also said people need to love working with people as well.

“If you love working with kids, you can work in schools or pediatric clinics,” she said. “If you enjoy helping those that have acute conditions, you can work in a hospital. You can work in outpatient rehab, nursing homes, feeding clinics, sensory clinics, home health, etc. There are so many opportunities for OTs.”

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