Josie Sales doesn’t consider herself a superhero.

But in her line of work, she might inadvertently ride through clouds—at least in the eyes of some of the impressionable young people who look to her at the front of the classroom.

Sales, a graduating special education major, has long envisioned being a teacher who focuses on individualized instruction while taking students’ interests and cultures into account. The granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, she recognized that need in her own schooling while attending ethnically and economically diverse districts.

“All of us have different experiences,” she said.

A teacher can be the most prominent adult in a child’s life. Sales knows that and has proudly worn it through her coursework and student teaching experiences at Illinois State—she’s been a part of the STEP-UP program connecting with urban communities.

Woman standing at the rail overlooking a crater
Sales during a study abroad experience in Costa Rica.

But unexpected personal tragedy rocked her own life. It made it hard for her to put on a strong front for her students during her pre-clinical student teaching period. After losing her grandmother, aunt, and grandfather all within a fourth-month period from September to January, the weight of grief got heavier. Sales, who had thoughts of quitting school in extreme moments of internal pressure, finally realized that she had to put on her own life mask in order to help others. 

“At the time, I felt that I wasn’t meeting the needs of my students because I was overwhelmed with my own life and my own grief,” she said. “What was best for me was taking care of myself. It’s important to be honest with what you need and realize not everyone needs to be superhuman.”

She made time to sleep, eat, and talk to people. She allowed herself to cry. She made it OK to be vulnerable, and that investment in herself allowed her to once again invest in others. 

“In putting on her own mask, she has also been a strong model for multiple students she has had in her clinical settings,” said Ashley Norton, assistant clinical professor of special education.

Rather than hide what was going on in her life, Sales decided to embrace it while teaching. Having students of Mexican descent while working in a classroom at a school in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, Sales tapped into their—and her—cultural roots by acknowledging the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday at the beginning of November where people gather to celebrate the lives of those lost.

Alter with snacks, photos, candles, and cards
Sales presented this “ofrenda” alter honoring her lost loved ones on the Day of the Dead to her students.

While it was important to embrace the cultural identity that came along with the day, it was helpful for both her and her students as the holiday fell two months after her grandmother’s passing.

“It was a way we could talk about loss and grieving and being open about our social-emotional needs when in difficult situations,” Sales said.

Sales also orchestrated an assembly for her school on International Women’s Day. In her life, she looked to her grandmother, aunt, and mother for inspiration, and she wanted to let young students know that female “superheroes” often wear costumes of everyday clothing.

“Yes, we do have these significant and successful women in all these areas, but we also have them in our community. We have them in our homes. We have them in our schools. We have them in our churches,” Sales said. “There are a lot of incredible women who are incredible role models.”

Sales will be just that in the classroom and whichever communities she’ll belong to.

First, she’ll receive a diploma that means a great deal to her and her family. Her grandmother, aunt, and grandfather never received high school degrees, let alone college. But they paved a path and showed Sales how to go after goals while treating people the right way.

“They couldn’t do it, but here I am doing it for them,” Sales said. “I wouldn’t have made it this far if it wasn’t for them.”

While her path to graduation had alternate courses, Sales persisted even at its most challenging turns.

“It is a journey that shows what perseverance, determination, grace for yourself and others, and professionalism look like,” Norton said.

Sales knows she’ll be looked upon for guidance throughout the rest of her career. She’ll be that role model for others that her family members were to her. While Sales will never see herself as a superhero, she’ll always encourage others to find their own superpowers within—even in the most challenging times.

“Always remember your why.”

This story is part of a series of profiles on Redbirds who are graduating this May. For more information about how Illinois State is celebrating commencement this semester, visit the Graduation Services website.