Image - From cafeteria to classroom
Lisa Morford was inspired to pursue her own education by working with Coastside students who have special needs. Kyle Ludowitz/Review 

In 2006, Lisa Morford was on the hunt for a job. Her daughter had just started kindergarten, and the Half Moon Bay native was on the lookout for a part-time position that would fit her new schedule.

Without giving it much thought, she started working in the cafeteria at Farallone View Elementary School. 

“And then I heard about another position here at Half Moon Bay High School for a paraprofessional,” she said. “I was interested in that, but I didn’t really know if I had the qualifications for that job. I had a diploma, but I didn’t really have anything else.” 

Morford decided to take the plunge. Thanks to her background as a nursing assistant, she was hired to help students in the class who were struggling with disabilities. 

But for Morford, her new role would come with much more than a better commute — it would awaken a dormant passion for special needs education. 

“It sparked something in me,” she said. “It was instantly like, ‘This is what I need to do.’ I had never felt a need to go to college until then.” 

Today, Morford works as a special education teacher for the high school’s special day class program, a position she has held since 2014. Tailored for students with moderate to severe disabilities, Morford said that she aims to foster independence among her students. 

“I really try to connect everything that we do to something functional in their life,” she said. “I don’t want to waste time with them on meaningless things. It should really be about (learning) something that is going to make them be better, more independent, meaningful individuals in society.

“I try to focus on their abilities, not on their disabilities,” she added. 

Back in 2008, Morford’s unique foray into the educational system was just beginning. Working as a paraprofessional at Half Moon Bay High School, Morford said she cultivated close relationships with her students and their families. 

“I started to feel that need of, ‘This is what I want to do someday,’” she said. “I wanted to be able to do what I felt was needed for these students. The only way that I was going to be able to do that was by actually getting my education and becoming a teacher.” 

That drive would sustain Morford throughout a series of educational hurdles over the next eight years. After taking night classes, one after another, at Cañada College and the College of San Mateo, she eventually transferred to San Francisco State University, where she majored in child development. 

“It was very scary at first,” said Morford. “Just walking into class. And then trying to convince myself that I could do it. Seeing the daunting list of classes that I had ahead of me, I wondered, ‘Am I actually going to be able to complete all of these?’ But I just told myself, one at a time.” 

Morford graduated from SFSU in 2014. But it didn’t take the budding instructor long to reach the classroom. Even as she was still working to earn her teaching credentials, Morford was hired as a special education instructor at Half Moon Bay High School that same year.

“They hired me on as a temp teacher, at first,” she said. “By the end of that first semester, I already had the beginning parts of my credentials started.” 

Juggling her new role at the high school with the pursuit of her master’s degree, Morford began taking online classes with National University in San Jose. She said that her students kept her committed to earning her degree. 

“Working in the classroom really kept me going,” said Morford, who was awarded her master’s degree in 2016. “The whole time, I was thinking, ‘I want to be here. There is no other option.’” 

In her special day class, Morford’s students — who range in age from 14 to 22 — cultivate essential life skills. In the classroom, equipped with a washer, dryer and a full kitchen, they scrub dishes, fold laundry and cook meals. Twice a week, Morford and her students venture into the world, where she helps them learn pedestrian safety and how to interact with others in the community. 

“They keep me so grounded in my own life,” she said. “How can I get worked up about the small things in life when I come in here and see students that have real challenges? And they still have very positive outlooks and smiles on their faces every day.” 

With her educational goals firmly in the rearview mirror, Morford hopes to continue working with her students in the years to come. 

“This is it,” Morford said. “I wouldn’t want to do anything else but work with the students that I work with. And I love the high school age because it is so rewarding to see them become adults. 

“I hope nobody wants me to leave,” she added, laughing.

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