Refol retires after decades of making a difference for special needs students in Bloomfield

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Aissa Refol, a Berkeley Elementary School special education teacher, retired Dec. 23.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Aissa Refol, a special education teacher at Berkeley Elementary School, has retired. Her final day was Friday, Dec. 23.

Born in the Philippines, Refol grew up in Jersey City and attended St. Michael’s Regional High School in Union City. She received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University and a master’s degree in special education from New Jersey City University.

“I have liked working with kids since I was little,” she told The Independent Press.

And she had plenty of opportunities to be with children.

“We were a family of four kids,” she said. “We’d go to camp. I had a younger brother and sister, and the neighborhood had kids, too, and, in Jersey City, everyone was outside. It was nice. You had the older kids and the younger kids, and everyone looked out for each other. And the parents came out with their lawn chairs. It was nice just being in the neighborhood.”

Refol was the first teacher in her family, and, from the start, she loved the profession. Her initial job was in Jersey City, at Regional Day School, a school for special needs children. She taught PSD, or preschool disabled, students. The children were 3 to 5 years old.

“I first had a classroom of visually impaired students; half were on the spectrum,” she said. “Being a first-year teacher, it was hard, but I stuck to it.”

She said it was difficult to figure out what was going on all the time, but she was grateful for the support she received from her principal and colleagues. 

“When you’re young, you hit the ground running,” she said. “Seeing those kids, it was hard. I could have said, ‘This is not for me,’ but I made it.”

She was at Regional Day for 12 and a half years, most of the time with PSD students and later with older students. She also worked as a resource teacher at the school. 

She moved to Bloomfield in 1993 and was “kind of surprised” that she did while still working in Jersey City, because it was quite a commute.

“But life happens,” she said.

With two daughters of her own, the travel eventually became an issue. So she found employment much closer to home.

Refol began her Bloomfield tenure in January 2001 at Oak View School, where she initiated the PSD program.

“It was a class that needed to happen,” she said.

She remained at Oak View for nine years and then moved to Berkeley, where she was an LLD, or learning language disability, teacher.

“Every year of teaching is different,” she said. “You learn to work with different students. Some years, I had kids high enough on the spectrum to be in LLD. But at Regional Day, some children were challenged. And the families of the children are different, too. Most parents are grateful their child has someplace to go. It was a relief for them that there was a school for their children.”

She said this concern was the same in Bloomfield. Consequently, Bloomfield opened a class for children on the spectrum.

Refol said the biggest change to teaching, since she began, has been technology. Now teachers have to be computer savvy. Virtual learning was also challenging, especially with LLD students.

“The parents have to be there with their children,” she said. “It’s a collaborative experience. You just can’t put the kid alone on the computer.”

But with the multitude of challenges come singular rewards. Refol enjoys keeping track of former students.

“I’m proud to say that (some) are in college now,” she said. “It’s nice to say that they’ve made it through the system.”

Other of her students are in the workforce, she said, adding that one reason she enjoys living in Bloomfield is that she will bump into parents of former students.

Refol said she is retiring now because of the demands of learning new technology.

“This goes back,” she said. “I decided last year.”

In retirement, she will continue early childhood intervention work.

“It will be different,” she said. “I’ll be assessing and evaluating children, from birth to 3 years old.”

She also plans to work with one of her daughters, Julia, in estate sales.

“I can’t wait to do that,” Refol said. “It’s something that’s fun and different, and I’ll be with people.”

Her other daughter, Lian, followed in her mother’s footsteps and is a teacher as well.