Teacher places focus on potential, not limits

Published on: March 01, 2005

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

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?

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?

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?

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

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?

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?

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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