Thriving Outside the Box with Special Education Teacher Austin Stanley

Last Update: May 2, 2022

Thrive Market is more than an online grocery store; it’s a community of over 1 million members with their own unique stories. Our members are parents and teachers, first responders and climate activists, artists and athletes—all doing healthy their way. We thought it was time to celebrate them, so welcome to Thriving Outside the Box: a series that puts our members in the spotlight and shares the inspiring, real-life stories that bring us together.

Austin Stanley sits behind his desk in his classroom in Madison, Wisconsin on the night of parent-teacher conferences. He’s filling his time between the normal school day and this open house, where he’ll be formally meeting with his students’ families and caregivers at the first in-person parent-teacher conferences since before the pandemic. He sounds excited, grateful for a return to in-person learning and for the opportunity to spend time with his students and their families. 

As a Cross Categorical Special Education Teacher in the Madison Metropolitan School District, Stanley serves a variety of needs in students who have been identified as having a disability (including emotional behavioral disorders, Autism, and ADHD). Stanley is also conscious of the food insecurity many of the students in his district face. “At our school, around 55% of our student body meets criteria for free and reduced lunch,” he told us. “It’s a constant challenge within budgets to provide families with not only nutritious foods, but also enough food and to support that growing demand of families living below the poverty line.”

Being a young teacher is difficult; spending the first few years of your teaching career during a global pandemic, even more so. But Stanley does it without losing sight of the greater good — the resilience of his students, all of whom face their own unique challenges — while maintaining a positivity and sense of humor unique to those who are truly meant for the job of teaching. “We try to grow and understand that things aren’t going to be perfect, and we adapt, and we kind of model that with our learners, too,” he says.

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, we spoke to Stanley about how he’s using his Thrive Gives membership to help model healthy behaviors for his students, and his hopes for a better food future for students everywhere. 

TM: When did you decide that you wanted to go into teaching? 

AS: My passion for teaching didn’t really begin until college. If you talk to my mom, she’ll tell you she saw the connection much earlier. I knew teaching wasn’t a career that would provide me with a luxurious lifestyle, but I knew it would build my spirit in more ways than I could ask for. 

I knew I wanted to make a difference in some way. In high school, I liked engaging with people, but I felt a hard time fitting in with different crowds. So at lunch, I would eat with some of our students who had disabilities and find connections in that way, but it wasn’t something I thought I could turn into a career. 

The college I went to had a really cool program that was for students with disabilities to go to college and have access to higher education, while really focusing on life skills. I started by mentoring in this program […] It wasn’t until I became more comfortable with teaching and taking a couple entry-level classes that I was like, Oh, I can do this. 

TM: The past few years have been particularly stressful on teachers. What were some of the biggest challenges for you?

AS: The last couple years have been a total roller coaster. It’s challenged a lot of our beliefs and our perspectives. Thankfully, educators have adapted to rolling with change almost consistently prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, even though this was a situation that none of us saw coming. It took a lot of time, and I’ve been extremely impressed with our ability to adapt. 

Someone once told me, ‘Change can broaden our perspective, it can reinvigorate us, but it can clarify our beliefs as well.’ Our biggest challenge was facing the inequities of our educational system that were further magnified through remote learning. As a district, we made it our mission to address a lot of those inequities. We made sure all of our families had access to technology and internet access, but in all honesty, we really didn’t find that this was enough to compensate for deeper challenges that a lot of our students face. Some families were able to support their kids through virtual learning and access the things that we’d sent home, while other kids weren’t. We felt lucky just to hear them on the phone and hear that they were okay. 

TM: How did teaching during COVID influence your teaching philosophy?

AS: We were a school that went full-on remote learning; many of us thrived in that environment, but some of us struggled. There was certainly a learning curve for all of us. Just to make our way through that stressful part of the year, we kind of learned not to sweat the little stuff, approaching everything with a growth mindset and recognizing that circumstances can change at any moment. We just try to grow and understand that things aren’t going to be perfect, and we adapt, and we kind of model that with our learners, too.

There was a deeper part to the whole closure, too. We had a lot of families really, really struggling. We needed to dial back and focus on social-emotional learning and think of those connections that these kids were losing with this extended school closure, and the sacrifices that these families were making — the loss of loved ones, and just generalizing what illness means. I’ve learned that kids are really resilient, and they tend to adapt. I’m continually impressed by them, and by all of our educators and their ability to adapt to those changes and come out of this on top.  

We’ve always done this. We’ve always adapted to meet the needs of students. It’s just a matter of when that child is ready, but ultimately everybody’s going to be okay.

TM: Food insecurity is the heart of our mission at Thrive Market, and we know that many students don’t have access to nutritious meals. Can you share your thoughts on food insecurity in our public schools? 

AS: At our school, around 55% of our student body meets criteria for free and reduced lunch. So that means that within our percentages, there are almost 300 kids living below the poverty line. It creates huge implications for schools to support families in having access to nutritious food. It’s a constant challenge within budgets to provide families with not only nutritious foods, but also enough food and to support that growing demand of families living below the poverty line. Within our district, we’ve seen that percentage slowly increase, and the pandemic has absolutely magnified a lot of those as well.

I absolutely have hope [for a better food future]. It comes down to people asking those questions, and it comes down to people in power asking those questions as well. Sadly, with staffing, things also need to be convenient; everything comes pre-packaged. We could have the best intentions in the world and all the healthy food, but if it can’t be prepared to feed, in our case, 550 kids in a few hours, it’s not sustainable. I hope public education can catch up, because a lot of the privatized sector has already implemented [fresher foods]. We need to prioritize how we feed our students, because I don’t think we’re considering how big of an impact it has within their school day. 

TM: How do you emphasize the importance of health and nutrition in the classroom? 

Meal times — whether it’s snack, lunch or breakfast — are really good community-building parts of the day. If everyone is having a universal snack, and having exposure to healthy foods, having deeper conversations about where this food came from, things we notice about the taste, the texture, if we like it or not, those are really community-building parts of the day. For a lot of our kids, even just getting to try these foods is huge. Sometimes that’s the only place that they’re really getting exposure to healthy foods.

TM: How do teachers help combat food insecurity? What can parents do to help? 

AS: I know some teachers who have adapted to creating snack plans where maybe a child can take something out of their breakfast that is free and reduced, that all children have access to, and if there’s something that they can hold onto for their snack, that can be an option.

Snacks are a big thing. If you’re a family who is fortunate enough to have access and you can donate those things, while we try not to make a big deal out of it, we are very gracious about donations. We recognize that people do what they can, and we make it work regardless. It helps when snacks aren’t processed, especially when kids are converting that food into energy. Unprocessed foods definitely go a long way with overall attention to mood, as well.

TM: We often hear adults remember that one special teacher who really made a difference in their life. What qualities do you think teachers have that make them so memorable or impactful?

AS: Your teachers always wore a cape in a lot of ways. It’s a really selfless career path. I noticed a lot of my teachers had characteristics like support, passion, patience and kindness. 

A career in education is unlike other careers because there isn’t the same division between work and personal life. We are constantly reflecting on our practice, which has so many layers, from content delivery and understanding a changing curriculum to supporting the social emotional needs of our students. We put a significant amount of time into getting to know our students and families. We ask questions that show we care and empathize with our students’ lives and show that their interests matter. The best teachers I had growing up knew both my strengths and my greatest challenges.

TM: Outside of teaching, what does life look like for you?

I have a deep passion for learning new skills, and I apply this most to renovating my 1880 Victorian home, which has certainly become my passion project. I purchased the home my first year of teaching, and it was good because most teachers in their first couple years really bury themselves in their work, and this gave me a really positive outlet to turn it into my own space. I’m constantly in different communities of antique hunters, going to sales, talking with people from different generations and sharing my collections with them.  

I also have a 3-year-old Australian shepherd named Duncan.  I’m a regular at our local dog park; every morning we get there with the sun. We walk around, and usually I can organize my day’s tasks and process previous events. 

I also love to cook, and every evening I try to take the time to prepare a meal for myself. My kitchen is without a doubt the most used room in my house. Cooking gives me a sense of purpose in an environment outside of my work. Regardless of what your position is, we all need something that fills your bucket up outside of work.

TM: What advice would you give to parents who want to give back to teachers?

AS: If there is anything parents can provide their child’s teacher with, it would be patience, grace, and overall optimism. Recognizing that everyone is simply doing their best and using that perspective to guide positive dialogue between home and school can truly go a long way to benefit the student.

Best Thrive Market Snacks for Kids

Who better than an elementary teacher to ask for kids’ snack tips? According to Stanley, the best school snacks are the ones that are healthy, tasty, and “easy for kids to open,” he says.

Here are his picks:

Thrive Market Organic Strawberry Apple Sauce with Probiotics

Thrive Market Organic Veggie Sticks

Thrive Market Sweet Potato Chips, Multipack 

Simple Mills Farmhouse Cheddar Almond Flour Cracker Snack Pack

Lesser Evil Organic Himalayan Pink Salt Popcorn Snack Pack

Blake’s Seed Based Rice Crispy Treats, Birthday Cake (“If I were to pick out my birthday treat, this would absolutely be it,” Stanley told us.) 

This article is related to:

Food Politics, Healthy Kids, Thrive Gives

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Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts is Thrive Market's Senior Editorial Writer. She is based in Los Angeles via Pittsburgh, PA.

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