A Season to Remember: The Gift of Teachers

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103This moment in time, with our shortest days, important holidays, and the changing of seasons, brings us to memory and reflection. It has been a bittersweet year in Albemarle County with the ongoing successes of our children mixed with tragedies in our schools and in our community. This has been very difficult for those in our very human-centered occupations. I have been remembering and reflecting, especially on the lives and passing of two of our beloved educators this month, teachers who touched the lives of children, parents and peers over their teaching careers.

At our recent School Board meeting, I described Robin Aldridge, Hollymead teacher, as a “Child Whisperer.” She was the teacher every parent wanted in their child’s corner and every teacher valued as a colleague. Board Chair Ned Galloway shared a few words about Sue Pasternack, Agnor-Hurt teacher, who leaves all who knew her with an imprint on our hearts as we remember her humor, passion, dedication and compassion for everyone she encountered. Both of these educators were warm and loving toward each child whom they served so faithfully.

Prior to a moment of silence for both of these remarkable educators, the best way I can explain their impact upon so many children and families over many years is to say that they personified our values for respect, community, excellence, and young people. They epitomized the master teacher I hope every young teacher aspires to become one day.

It was not Robin or Sue who chose their careers; it was the profession that chose them. They had a gift to offer to children and families in our community that could never have been purchased. It was a gift priced not in numbers, but in faces—the faces of children with excitement in their eyes, smiles in their voices, and the unbridled confidence that comes with making new friends and new discoveries.

What truly is special about our Albemarle community is that our students reach their welcomed destinations with the support and encouragement of not just the professionals who educate them, but also, through the efforts of those who transport them, feed them, keep them safe and healthy, and provide them with learning environments that are anything but ordinary.

You serve as a model for our nation, and what a gift that is. We receive accolades every week for the exemplary performance of learners, employees, departments and schools. Our students distinguish our community through arts, athletics, academics, community service, and leadership. This does not happen by chance; it happens because of each of you. No matter your role in working with children, you all are teachers, and our children learn from the words you use, the smiles you share, and the care you provide.

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In the past two weeks, more than one of you has said to me that a casualty of our hugely productive but overcrowded professional lives is that we do not sufficiently take the time to tell those with whom we work how much we value and appreciate each other. So as we prepare for a much-deserved winter break, I want you to know how much I admire your selfless devotion to our students and to our colleagues, and most of all, your contributions to making our community and nation a better place.

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Thank you for your commitment to the young people we serve together, and please have a safe, enjoyable and restful holiday season with family and friends.

Dear Teachers: A Letter of Gratitude During National Autism Awareness Month

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I receive letters and comments with some regularity from parents expressing thanks for teachers who have made a difference in the lives of learners enrolled in our schools. Once a parent described a teacher as creating “Kodak moments” in her child’s life. I think the following post describes just that.

When Amy Price Azano, mother, shared a link to a national blog post she wrote about Albemarle educators who made a difference not just in the life of her young child but her family, I asked her if I could cross-post it here. She agreed. April is National Autism Awareness Month and her blog post references its particular significance to her. I’m honored to share it with you.

Inspiring Others

        By Amy Price Azano on April 1st, 2014

April is National Autism Awareness Month. April 2nd marks World Autism Awareness Day. Light it up blue tomorrow for World Autism Day. Today’s blog post is in honor of these celebrations.

Dear teachers: Thank you for sharing our “autism life”

First doctor’s visit. First haircut. First wave. First “Momma.” Autism is measured by these missed developmental milestones, and I have long since misplaced those typically developing checklists and corresponding stickers for my son’s baby book. His first doctor’s visit was for colic and every appointment that followed had its own nightmarish retelling. His first haircut had a similar story: fearful screams as if the barber would slice off a leg rather than a soft shaft of hair. We had no diagnosis, only a sinking feeling that something was wrong. He was a year old. He wanted no part of his birthday party or the birthday cake or the presents or the noise or the company. He got a “first birthday” sticker in his book, but not the stickers that would follow: first wave hello, say bye-bye. He did not say “momma” or “dada” or “milk” or “water” or “bed” or “hi” or “I love you.” We were left with an empty book and too many sticky reminders of those unreached milestones.

This was the autism life as we knew it — managing the daily challenges, triumphs, the revolving door of speech and occupational therapists in and out of our home, the unimaginable patience we drummed up each day, the enthusiasm for small requests, the attempts at eye contact and sounds that resembled words. Autism didn’t just isolate my son from the world; it isolated and insulated all of our worlds. There were no family vacations and too often our best laid plans were force abandoned by meltdowns or overwhelming anxiety.

That’s until I met you: the teacher in his first self-contained special-education classroom. My son was my first exposure to autism, but you were experienced with students on the spectrum. As I tried to explain the nuances of his anxieties, you reassured me and said: I will keep him safe. I cried knowing he would be afraid and confused, and you replied: He will have fun and learn how to be more independent. And each time, you were right. That’s until you kicked him out. You argued that the self-contained classroom was no longer his least restrictive environment, so you helped me find a hybrid, inclusive (reverse mainstream) preschool classroom where he would have typically-developing peers who could help with his speech and social interactions.

So then I met you: the dual-endorsed elementary and special-education teacher who invited my son to the classroom on a quiet evening after a long day of teaching other students. You sat on the floor with him while he looked at trucks and trains. You didn’t ask him any questions. You just sat quietly while he explored, and you joined him. He grabbed a car so you grabbed a car. He put down a block. You put one on top. Then you pulled out a basket and started cleaning up, and he followed in unison without either of you saying a word. Weeks later, you asked your bus driver friend to park outside your classroom during the middle of the school day. I told you he was scared of the big bus, despite his love for anything with wheels. You said: Let me try and led all the students outside, rolled pennies onto the floor, and created a scavenger hunt. All of a sudden, my son was climbing onto a bus looking for pennies — just like the rest of his new friends. You emailed me nearly every day of the entire school year to tell me about his meltdowns, his accomplishments, his response to the fire drill, the student assembly, and you brainstormed with me how we might get him potty trained before kindergarten. You graduated him with honors.

Now onto the big school with the big bus and the big kids. And there you were again: the teacher. This time an inclusive, general-education kindergarten teacher with a huge smile and a high voice and bright running shoes. You taught him to love school, to read, to make friends. You coached him into taking turns on the tricycle. You made him star of the week and came to his first ever friend birthday party because he invited you. You hugged him every day (and still do when he sees you in the hall).

Now we get to track educational milestones — and they’re sticky, too, with glue and finger paint and your silly smiley faces at the top of his first grade work. My son has a favorite author, greets his bus driver every morning, has play dates with his neighborhood friend, enjoys school and told me twice today that he loves me — and it’s largely because of you, teacher. Doctors visits are still challenging, meltdowns happen, haircuts are out of the question, but now I have someone from the “outside” who understands, who will brainstorm interventions and offer objective advice. You have asked me to trust you and, in return, you love my son. You keep him safe, teach him independence, and instill a love for learning. You honor his way of being in the world. You are a part of our autism life and make us all feel less isolated. Never underestimate your role or question whether or not you make a difference. Trust me: You do.

Amy Price Azano is a professor of adolescent literacy at Virginia Tech. Follow her on Twitter @ruralprof. Her original post was shared at Smart Blog on Education