Valley Life for All: Grace Nilsson’s calling to teach students with special needs |

Valley Life for All: Grace Nilsson’s calling to teach students with special needs

Annie Uyehara
Special to the Daily

Editor’s note: The Vail Daily, in conjunction with Valley Life For All, continues a monthly series of profiles to increase awareness of the value of people of all abilities.

When she graduates from college, Grace Nilsson will be able to get a job anywhere she chooses. Her career choice is not based on salary but on an inherent desire to teach a population that’s underserved in our community.

Nilsson will graduate with a degree in Special Education and immediately start her career as a special needs teacher.

Grace Nilsson

“It’s going to be a highly demanding job, but the students are more than capable of achieving standards, and it’s so awesome to see them succeed,” Nilsson said. She has been racking up hours as an intern and when she graduates in May, she’ll have over 1,000 hours of working with special needs students. A lot of work, but Nilsson hasn’t wavered from her goal.

“I’ve always felt called to do this. I think God placed it on my heart.”

Growing up, a classmate had intellectual disabilities and instead of avoiding him, she wanted to know him well, as she does with her future students. “I don’t want to coddle them, but to understand them and their goals in life,” she said.

In middle school, Nilsson remembers watching kids react to special needs students. “They’d think they have to be best friends with them, to make themselves look better. But for me it was getting to know them instead of pretending to know them for aesthetic reasons by bringing them into a friend circle.”

When she becomes a teacher, Nilsson will focus on inclusion for special needs students. “This is a challenge that needs to be addressed. I think interaction with peers is one of the most important issues there is,” she said.

The other important issues are access to information for students with special needs, and of course, a solid academic foundation.

That being said, Nilsson admits that she has to assimilate herself with difficult students. Learning in college is one thing, it’s another to train with special needs students who are violent, she says.

“To work with violent or nonverbal students takes a relationship and I’m willing to do that. To see breakthroughs is one of the best things about working in special education.”

It goes back to reaching beyond an aesthetic relationship. “Don’t get to know special needs students for your own gain — really get to know them beyond their disability, see them as a whole person with hopes and dreams and goals. That’s what I’m hearing from them: Gather information about us and get to know us.”

Local nonprofit Valley Life for All is working to build inclusive communities where people of all abilities belong and contribute. Find us at or on Facebook.

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