Few people ever learn to juggle better than professional performers, but Bianca Pietro seems to manage it with ineffable ease. As a Special Educator, her days may be challenging, as a mother of two her arms are full, as a performer and Director of Youth Theatre Education she fields a thousand details, and as a graduate student, her evening schedule has little time for sleep.
Bianca’s career destiny first manifested in elementary school. A close friend in a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy had suddenly stopped attending. Feeling sad and not fully understanding her friend’s diagnosis at the time, Bianca asked her mother if her friend had died. The relief of hearing her friend was alive was countered by the confusion as to why her friend had to change to a different school in order to support her needs.
Inspired by the memory of her childhood friend, in middle school Bianca revamped her schedule to become a volunteer, working on activities of daily living and recreation with individuals with varying abilities. Continuing her volunteer activities through high school, her passion inspired her to earn a B.S. in Special Education with a minor in Spanish from Illinois State University in May 2014.
Pietro has taught individuals with “exceptionalities” (disabilities) from age 3 to 21 years old. One of her most poignant memories was an early elementary student with developmental and physical challenges, including partial blindness and severely limited verbal skills, and who had moved through foster homes since birth. Adapting to the student’s visual limitations, Bianca worked with her using a lightbox so she could see colored objects and used this technique to teach her several vocabulary words and the letters of her name for the first time. Her coordinating teacher believed that “there are no boundaries to what can be done to improve someone’s abilities”.
Currently, Bianca teaches a course titled Independent Living Skills to high school students, covering topics such as hygiene, laundry, cooking, budgeting, and scheduling. Children with exceptionalities are too often told they cannot do certain things because of their developmental or physical limitations. By contrast, Pietro feels that these students should be encouraged to focus and master those skills. She takes her students on public transportation to bolster their confidence and encourages self-sufficiency to reduce their dependence on others for basic needs.
“Independence feels good. Parents must allow their kids to learn and not expect to fix everything that seems difficult.”
Despite the enormous communication challenges facing teachers during the pandemic, Pietro has discovered that many parents who previously could not attend special education meetings in person are now able to meet virtually. She has created multiple tutorials for parents to log onto remote learning sites and access various tools for their children’s lessons. Educating parents to help their special needs children without enabling them is a bonus that she counts among the unexpected benefits of the public health crisis.
Another road to this journey of confidence is through the performing arts. The success of blending musical theatre with special education is measured by the enthusiasm of both students and parents. “Whether a student with exceptionalities or a youth theatre performer, no one is expected to be a Broadway star. Each of us performs to our own level and we try to grow that ability to the highest level possible.”
Pietro began her MEd studies as a part-time student in 2014 and completed her degree in 2019 with a concentration in autism spectrum disorder. Given the time constraints of her busy life, online learning presented the only practical option to obtain a degree and the UNH Education Department offered the “best program for a working person who wanted a broad range of outcomes from their studies”.
Never straying far from her commitment to the theatre, Pietro received her degree during the UNH graduation ceremony in the morning, then raced off to be on stage for a matinee performance as “Ariel” in Footloose (which she choreographed) at the Rochester Opera House, a balancing act of schedule and energy.
“Theatre nurtures the things I love to do. Whenever I can marry theatre with my special education work, the resulting joy and creativity feed my soul.”
For her performance as a master juggler of life choices, Bianca should win an Oscar.
Written by Gwendolyn Goguelet