Looking On The Bright Side Of Life
● By Christy Quebedeaux
Local Educator Honored For Work As An Advocate Of Special Needs Education
By Kari Walker
Cheery, caring and courageous-—that’s how New Iberia native and educator Melissa Chastant-Huval could best be described. It only takes one encounter to feel her passion for children and education and know she’s always on a mission to polish up a star to shine.
As an educator for the past 15 years, Chastant-Huval takes pride in inspiring her students and paving the way for opportunities for learning. Most recently, she was a special education resource teacher at North Lewis Elementary and this fall will join Loreauville Elementary to launch a pre-kindergarten special education program.
“The Loreauville community is so excited for this program—there was a need to have a program like this so children could stay at their community school and not move to another school for a special needs program,” she explains.
Sometimes for Chastant-Huval teaching is like looking in a mirror of her childhood. She too understands how difficult it can be to learn in a classroom when extra time and attention is needed to grasp core concepts.
“I’m actually a special education student myself—I’ve had many angels help open doors for me,” she tells.
At birth, Chastant-Huval’s mother and father were told she would not be like other children—she was not expected to live a fully functioning life due to complications of a high-risk pregnancy. Chastant-Huval was classified as learning disabled as well as hearing and speech impaired.
She knows without support and help over the years, she would not have been able to pursue higher education with the label as a special needs student.
She has exceeded all expectations of her doctors by thriving and it’s evident by the impressive education Chastant-Huval has pursued: she holds a bachelor’s in both sociology and education, a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, as well as special education and educational diagnostician certifications.
“My friends and family were such strong advocates for me to be where I’m at today.” It’s because of this encouragement to succeed she is passing on the gift of education to her students. “My reason for teaching, is to give back to the community and special education students—I want to help open doors and find a student’s potential, gifts and allow them to shine and soar like an angel, just like I have,” Chastant-Huval says.
She focuses on the belief that any child can achieve more than what’s expected, no matter the circumstance.
“My philosophy is that it doesn’t matter what star you’re born on—it just matters what you do to let your star shine.”
This year Chastant-Huval will serve as president for the Louisiana Council for Exceptional Children. This council of educators is guided by the mission to set the standard for high quality education for exceptional students as well as serve as a resource for special education teachers.
Her charge this year will be continuing the development of inclusion teaching.
“We are looking at how laws will change for special education—how special education will merge into general education. We are working on collaborating with teachers working with all student levels,” she explains.
In the past, the model of teaching special needs has leaned towards pulling out students for separate instruction, but the trend is towards teaching one curriculum challenging all students at any need level. Her experience working in small groups within a larger classroom has been productive in meeting challenges of learning needs.
Approaching teaching from multiple angles yields the most effect in Chastant-Huval’s experience. Utilizing collaborative methods helps everyone in the classroom.
“As teachers, we all are accountable for all the students— the regular classroom teacher would teach on a higher level and then I would be able to come in and work with visual and kinesthetic learners and do more hands on teaching trying to meet the needs of all sensory learning,” Chastant-Huval explains on collaborative teaching.
She strongly believes this type of practice will be the most effective way to teach as it not only helps those with special needs, but also reinforces course work for the class as a whole.
“It’s beautiful in the classroom to see two adults teamed together presenting and all of the students are working together—when some students gets a skill, they might break into small groups and help each other. It always works where one student can help another and they both learn. The whole point is to teach for a lifetime of skills,” she stresses.
Chastant-Huval’s passion is not unnoticed as she recently received the honor of the Governor’s Outstanding Leadership in Disabilities (GOLD) award. This recognition pays tribute to those working in dedication to teaching the disabled. She was nominated by fellow teacher, Jeanneé Hebert, and other professional colleagues who see the passion poured out in her work.
Winning this award is more than an accolade to add to Chastant-Huval’s list of achievements, it’s another door opening to continue her passion on advocating for special education.
“I am finally able to open up about myself—I really didn’t speak before on being raised as a special education student,” she says on her honor. “It’s opened so many doors for my students and their parents. I go in stores and other parents see me and pull me aside and ask questions—I’m all about advocating and that’s why I teach.”
Her students now know more about her struggles and that she’s been in their shoes. Sometimes they cry together and sometimes they laugh about the experiences they have in common, but in the end it’s about the privilege to be part of a student’s life and improve their outcomes.
“I teach the value of self-worth—when students see their academic growth, they realize potential. This is when self-image becomes positive—this is the beauty of education. I have to polish their stars just like many educators have polished my star,” Chastant-Huval explains. “My educational experiences are constantly reminding me to look for that sunshiny star.”
Beyond the classroom, Chastant-Huval spends her time leaning on her rock, her husband, Gerald Huval, who supports her continuing mission to serve the community. She also recharges through yoga and Pilates and volunteering with the Berry Queens. “We volunteer in the community and raise money for Habitat for Humanity. My queen name is ‘Queen Smiley’,” Chastant-Huval beams.
There’s no better nickname suited for this community leader on a mission to encourage all in her path to shine their brightest star.