Teacher places focus on potential, not limits

When Dee Hill looks at a child with special needs, she sees the potential, not the limitations. That's probably because Hill, in her eighth year at Park Orchard Elementary in Kent, has conquered more than her share of mountains.

A three-time breast cancer survivor and full-time special education teacher for students with severe developmental disabilities, Hill's love and warmth are palpable. As she works with a student, she leans in close, almost enveloping the child, eyes completely focused. Her ability to draw out skills in students is beautiful. Children who people said would never read are reading; children unable to speak are communicating.

"She has that vision for each kid," says Janessa Steen, a para-educator (educational aide) in Hill's room.

"Dee treats each child like a person with a personality. She is so excited about what each child can do," says Sandy Walker, whose 9-year-old daughter Jessica has quadriplegia due to cerebral palsy and is in Hill's class.

Cathy Dormaier, Hill's principal, says Hill is incredibly positive and seeks creative solutions. "She is truly an inspiration to all of us," Dormaier says. "She is phenomenal. Not only in the classroom and in not giving up on kids, always looking for ways to help them succeed, regardless of their disabilities, but also in her personal fight against cancer. She has never given up. She is a third-time breast cancer survivor, had a double mastectomy plus lymph nodes removed, and still came to school through all of it bubbly, happy to be alive, and happy to be here making a difference in kids' lives."

When Hill's doctor told her it was too dangerous for her health to be in the classroom, she worked in the district office. After she ran out of sick leave, coworkers donated theirs.

Hill was selected for the KING 5/Bon-Macy's Follow a Leader contest, was a participant in the Bon-Macy's fashion show for breast cancer survivors, and was the survivor speaker for the Kent Relay for Life rally.

Every Child visited with Dee Hill, this edition's Hero, and talked with her about her role as a teacher dedicated to students with developmental disabilities.

Q: How would you describe your philosophy in teaching special education?

A: Special education is all about, "Yes, you can, and we are going to learn how." Students have a right to dignity, and they are not going to have it if no one has expectations for them. When kids look different, other kids notice. However, when kids have similar abilities, those differences begin to dissolve.

I teach in a self-contained classroom. However, some of my students are integrated into regular education classes for activities where our teaching team thinks they will be successful. My sixth-grade students have been integrated with their general education peers since first grade. They go to lunch, music, gym and recess with those peers. We set up peer buddies. If a student needs a little help running around the gym, for instance, a peer will take him by the hand and run with him. Through these encounters, my students begin to be seen as individuals. I think that is what is really important.

Before I integrate a student in a general education classroom, I go in, with parent permission, to talk to the class. I work to establish commonalities; for instance, I might ask, "Who watches SpongeBob after school? Guess what, I have a student who is going to start eating lunch with you and he likes SpongeBob, too!"

Q: What would you like people to understand about kids with special needs?

A: They understand what you are saying to them and around them. You need to remember that and talk to these kids as you would anybody else. Just because a child cannot talk does not mean he or she doesn't understand what you are saying.

These kids are wonderful. They have humor, they have hurt feelings, and when they don't feel good they need a hug. It is all about treating them as you would anybody else.

Q: What encouragement can you offer to parents of kids with special needs?

A: It is hard to raise a child, and it is really hard to raise a child with special needs. Understand that there are teachers out here who see the possibilities for all kids and believe in them. Families are not alone.

The most important thing that parents need to do is network with each other. If your child is having an event at school, go. You are going to meet other parents who are on the same or a similar path. You will be able to network and help each other with support and problem solving.

I understand that there are teachers out there who are burned out. On one hand, you need to be a really strong advocate for your child, but on the other hand, some parents get so "into" the advocacy that even when they have a teacher who is doing a great job, they are still unable to trust him or her. This kind of approach can drive good teachers out of the field. Parents have a fine line to walk.

Q: What advice do you have for people facing a difficult situation or illness?

A: Learn to let friends and family support you. Don't feel guilty when somebody shows up with dinner. This is not a road you have to travel alone. Let your friends and family help.

Q: What have you learned from your teaching and your battle with cancer?

A: Honestly, these kids are my teachers. A lot of them were in neonatal units for a major part of their first years and yet they are happy and relatively healthy, and they are strong. Some of them weighed only a pound when they were born. You look at them now and say, "Wow, look at you!" They are really strong little individuals, and I just look at them and think, "You know what, if you can do it, so can I!"

Jolene Gensheimer is a freelance writer and mother of two.

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