As children, while I was still busy beating up the neighborhood boys, my sister was training to be a teacher. With hand-me-down teaching materials from our parents, both educators, she lined up stuffed animals and dolls in front of her chalkboard. Even back then, she never raised her voice. In an old grade book, she recorded only As and Bs making sure that every Connie doll and Teddy bear in her classroom passed with flying colors.
With a soft spot for the underdog, she befriended the child with a limp and made sure the class misfit was included in games. While I was an ornery, hard hitter looking for a fight, Sue, the peacekeeper, inherited an extra kindness gene. Never has a more compassionate soul walked the earth.
As if she couldn’t wait to get started, she graduated a semester early from Illinois State University with a degree in special education. Her first job was so challenging, she questioned her calling, but she didn’t give up. She moved on to Yorkville High School, becoming the first fulltime LD teacher where she dedicated the next 34 years building the special education department, one brick at a time. When she arrived she was the only LD teacher, now nine teachers in her department serve the needs of about 120 students and co teach in 45 classes where they reach additional students. YHS has 4 other special needs programs with another 80 plus students and Sue and her staff sometimes work with those students though they aren’t on their caseloads.
Sue has been honored with Teacher of the Year accolades and the Fox Pride Award but what makes her proudest is hearing about the successes of her former students. And she does find out because her students keep in touch. Several of her students have been inspired to go into teaching.
Most people embrace retirement with open arms; my sister’s heart is torn. If one could put the state testing requirements, curriculum writing, and administrative demands aside, she would remain in education forever. She never really wanted to give up the teaching.
In her magical way, she made every child who felt stupid and hopeless believe that he had something special to offer the world. She unlocked the key to his heart, unscrambled his mind. Then sitting by his side, she taught him tricks to interpret the world in a way that made sense to his brain.
In Sue’s classroom, students never felt uniqueness was a deterrent. She helped dyslexic kids learn to read and ADHD children to understand concepts while on the move. She counseled distraught parents and troubled teens, and won over colleagues and administrators. As a catalyst, she united families, educators and support staff to work together for the best interest of the child. As an advocate, she implemented the best accommodations and individualized education plans to give her students every tool to succeed. She never pampered special needs kids through the program, she merely leveled the playing field and made sure every child in her department was prepared.
As if preordained, my sister was destined to teach, born with a gift. She set the bar high and served her school with excellence. She earned her rest, yet I imagine she will continue doing what she does best, giving back to her family, friends, church, and community. Though she retired from her position at the head of the class, her legacy continues in students and colleagues and family members whose lives she touched as a teacher.
The greatest proponents of education theorize that kids learn best by modeling behavior. Sue set a shining example, sharing her time, her energy, her wisdom and her heart, not only with her students, but also with the rest of us. She taught each day in a state of grace and went out of her way to make the journey easier for anyone who crossed her path. In her book, we were all special and gifted.