Tag Archives: special needs

Lessons for Teachers


The teacher learnsLessons from the Greatest Teacher Of My Life

Ironically we met in a hospital and not in a school.  She wasn’t even the one who inspired me to become a teacher.  When we met, I had already been a teacher myself for fifteen years.  But that just made it easier for me to recognize what a master teacher she was.  I made myself a promise.  I would watch her carefully, ask questions, and learn everything I could.

The greatest teacher of my life is my daughter, Kelsey.  Born with cerebral palsy, she later developed brain cancer when she was five years old.  Vivid and remarkable are the lessons she taught me. I am a better teacher forever because of her patience with me.

learn to tie shoesA Challenge

When Kelsey was four, she wanted to learn to tie her shoes.  A best friend had accomplished this important childhood feat.  Even though I had worked with preschoolers for many years, I was stumped.  Because of cerebral palsy Kelsey was left with very little use of the fingers and thumb on her left hand.  I was unable to tie a shoe with one hand.  How could I teach her?  Medical insurance refused to cover occupational or physical therapy.  It seems the term “pre-existing condition” excuses them, forever, from a child’s needs.  We struggled for three and a half years with this one maddeningly simple task.  But she mastered it.  On the first day of summer vacation when she was seven and a half years old, as I watched and encouraged her she taught herself to tie her shoes with one hand.  She beamed from ear to ear.  I cried.

Lesson Learned

I noticed something important after she conquered her shoe laces.  No one ever asked her how old she was when she mastered the skill.  Lesson learned by this teacher?  In the long run learning pace is of little importance.  Accomplishing meaningful goals within our own timetable is what matters most.

Then Came the Cancer

Kelsey during cancer treatment

Throughout her cancer treatment, Kelsey gained some control over her circumstances through play.  Whenever we were in the hospital, she wanted to play “restaurant”.  She was always the waitress and I was cast as the customer.  Hours on end we played this game of her choice.  She lost herself in this dramatic- play-acting; it was if we weren’t in the hospital at all.

When we were home where she felt safe, she always wanted to play “hospital.”  In this game she was the doctor – in charge for a change.  Family members and friends had to be the patients. She developed a game called “radiation” that had an uncanny realism to it.  Her play often included medical terms her peers and many adults didn’t understand, but it didn’t matter.  She had found a healthy way to cope with the scary things that were happening to her in the hospital.  She did much better than cope.  She was happy.  What had I learned?  She taught me firsthand and emphatically about the important therapeutic value of play.

The Enthusiastic Ballerina

ballerinaWhen Kelsey was six she wanted to take ballet lessons. I’m embarrassed to admit how much this frightened me.  At the time she was in chemotherapy. Her muscles were weak from the chemo drugs.  She had very poor balance following her brain surgery and her weight had slipped to 34 pounds. There was an awkwardness to her left leg and arm due to her cerebral palsy.  She was bald and wore a patch over her left eye.  I was afraid she would fall and get hurt.  And, let’s be honest, I was afraid the other girls would make fun of her.

Fortunately I didn’t know how to tell my daughter about my fears, and she persisted with her request until I enrolled her in ballet class.  I had forgotten what she knew instinctively.  The process is always more important than the product.  She danced with joy.  The sheer fun of dancing was her goal. Did she fall?  Of course.  Was she awkward?  You bet.  Did it matter?  Not a bit.  Every child and adult who watched Kelsey dance gained something special from it.  Her dancing career lasted four years.  She only quit when she decided she wanted to take horseback riding lessons instead.  This time I had learned my lesson.  I signed her up without hesitating.

lesson from basketballLessons from Basketball

In fifth grade Kelsey excitedly brought home a registration form for intramural basketball.  She wanted to play.  I knew it would be a major challenge for her.  Our daughter could only run very slowly and with great difficulty.  She was also very short as her pituitary gland had been severely damaged by the cranial radiation she had received to survive cancer.  For many, many years she received a daily injection of growth hormone to grow at all.  She only had the use of one hand to play ball.  Caution bells went off inside my head again, but I had learned to ignore them.  The excitement in her eyes emphatically canceled out all those drawbacks.

We signed her up.  After the first practice the coach/gym teacher, George Losh, said he was afraid for her to play in a regular game.  He was afraid she would get hurt.  I’m certain lawsuits danced in his head.  But every child who participates in sports risks physical harm.  If her risk was greater, her need to belong was greater too.  We encouraged him to let her play.  George Losh’s physical education classes were always child-centered and structured so that every child could feel some measure of success.  For two years Kelsey played basketball harder than any girl in the league.  No, she never made a basket during a game.  Some huge successes are subtle.  In two years we never once saw a teammate treat her as anything other than as asset to the team.  After weeks of trying, when Kelsey made her first basket during practice, every girl in the entire gymnasium stopped to applaud.  Watching this young lady struggle and triumph increased the humanity of all who knew her.  On game days when we stopped in the grocery store, Kelsey quickly shed her winter coat into the grocery cart.  It took me a few times to figure out that she was so proud of her team shirt, she didn’t want it to go unnoticed under her coat.  She was thrilled to be part of a team.

Most Important Lesson of All


What is the single most important lesson Kelsey taught me?

Being excluded hurts.  Be certain of this.  The older my daughter grew, the more excluded she was… both by her peers and unfortunately by some teachers too.  Whatever educational jargon or current political term you choose to use, the results are still the same.  Being excluded hurts.

Possessing a physical disability or struggling with a different learning style did not rob my daughter of her sensitivity.  Being excluded hurts!  It hurts the children being excluded.  It robs them of the role models-their typically developing peers-they so greatly need.  It shortchange the children with ‘normal’ growth patterns too.  Inclusive environments reduce fears, build understanding, and teach compassion, patience, and tolerance in a way ‘special’ schools and ‘special’ classrooms never will.  Inclusive environments reflect life and the society in which we live.  How can we separate our children now and expect them to adjust successfully to one another at some magical, mythical time in the future?

Becoming a Great Teacher

Good teachers become great teachers when they become students themselves.  Children have much to teach us if we will only watch and listen carefully.  Kelsey’s dream of becoming a teacher did not end when her cancer returned and she died at age sixteen.  Kelsey was an incredible teacher all of her life. I cannot tell you how many times one of her teachers would come to me at the end of the year and say, “She taught me so much more than I taught her.”  I came to expect it, because I had learned that it was true.

Kelsey modeled for me how to handle rejection without becoming angry.  She showed me how to simply ignore seemingly insurmountable challenges and just focus on living life to the fullest.  She taught me how to more greatly appreciate the simple joys of family and traditions.  She modeled how to maintain a sense of humor and grace even in the face of death.  She has left the most incredible legacy for all who knew and loved her…and all my future students too.  She will forever be the greatest teacher of my life.  May her story touch your teaching life, too.

Kelsey Noel Easley


Kelsey's lessons

TEACH...To Change Lives

TEACH…To Change Lives

Autographed or in large quantities from the author dauna@cinci.rr.com

Also available at Amazon.com

TEACH…To Change Lives


Life Changers

TEACH...To Change LivesThey sneak up on you.  Life changers come from out of nowhere.  You wake up in the morning expecting a typical day, but you meet someone new, or something unexpected happens on that day, and it changes the course of your life.  Sometimes you figure it out on the very day it happens.  You say to yourself

Wow.  I’m going to remember this day forever.

But some life changers only reveal themselves over a long period of time.  It may take decades before you know the full impact they have on you.  Life changers can feel wonderful or horrible.  The things they have in common are that they are out of our control and they change us profoundly.  They are different from significant days that you plan like a wedding or a reunion. They appear suddenly and alter our lives in unexpected ways.

One of the things I love about teaching is that we get to experience so many life changers.  Sometimes it’s a person, often a student, other times it’s an event or simply a tiny moment. Sometimes we teachers become the life changers and we may even be unaware of it. But in this wonderful profession life changers are possible every single day.

My life changerOne of My Life Changers

This is my youngest daughter, Kelsey Easley. Her life was a life changer for me. This story isn’t mostly about Kelsey but it begins with her.  When Kelsey was born I had already been a teacher for fifteen years. I believe I was a good teacher, creative and hard-working.  But watching my daughter’s life and her experiences changed my teaching profoundly.

Kelsey was diagnosed with brain cancer at age five. She battled cancer off and on for eleven years until the disease took her life at age sixteen.  When Kelsey had to receive radiation to her brain at age five, it saved her life but it also changed her life.  Radiation kills healthy cells as well as cancer cells.  As a result Kelsey’s intelligence plummeted.  She went from being the top reader in her kindergarten class, to the lowest reader by the end of the first grade with the same peers.  Now she didn’t just have a deadly disease to battle, she also was forced to enter the population we politely label special needs.

That experience put me (Kelsey’s mom) on the other side of the IEP conference table…the side of the table where no parent ever chooses to be. I learned a lot of lessons on the parent side of the table, most of them painful.  I saw teachers and specialists in a whole new and often unflattering way.  Too often I saw condescension or inflexibility. It changed me.

I also learned how naturally accepting and inclusive young children are.  They’ll love you bald.  It makes no difference.  But acceptance changes at about junior high age.  What Kelsey needed the most in junior high and high school were friends and there were very few. I watched her hurt and no one deserved it less.

How This Changed Me

life changers

It would be impossible to describe all the ways parenting Kelsey changed me; but for right now I’ll share one story.  When I began teaching a Teacher Academy program at the high school level, I decided to begin a Friendship Club between my class full of academically talented future teachers and the students with special needs in our high school.  Kelsey had taught me that friends were what the special population needed most.  Instinct and my own experiences taught me that my future teachers would learn even more. My students knew all about Kelsey.  She had passed away by then but I shared many stories about her.

We planned monthly activities pairing our aspiring teachers and their new friends from the special education department.  The outcomes were wonderful.  True friendships emerged.  Simply a new friend to greet in the high school hallways was an improvement for the special population.  Many of our new friends wandered into our classroom routinely before school and during breaks.  My future teachers learned to plan appropriate activities that encouraged conversations and natural friendships. They also learned patience, tolerance, how to modify activities to feature all talents, a new respect for challenges our less fortunate friends encountered and a gratitude for our own gifts.

You’d think a win/win idea like this one would be greeted with positive reactions from all, but it had its challenges.  Most of the special population didn’t drive and were quite dependent on school transportation specially equipped for their needs.  This meant our functions had to happen within school hours.  Some teachers were opposed to having students miss class, though we tried mightily to schedule these events during lunch hours.  Locations were hard to schedule too.  But the challenges were worth the effort.  Relationships formed and barriers were removed.

Will You Help?

One day an unexpected email (a life changer) challenged all of us to examine just how sincere our intentions were. The email came from Steven’s mom.  Steven was one of our new friends who was almost completely nonverbal.  Steven’s mom wanted her son to have the opportunity to attend the prom. Would any of my students be willing to have Steven be part of their prom night?  I read the question from the email aloud to my future teachers and waited.  It was very quiet.  No teens made eye contact with me. Here was Kelsey’s mom standing in front of them asking an uncomfortable question.  PROM?  A pretty sacred night for a teen.

After a somewhat lengthy pause Chelsea finally spoke up.

I’ll take Steven to the prom. I didn’t have anyone special I wanted to go with, and I couldn’t rationalize spending the money, but this gives me a good reason to go.   

Her friends complimented her and told her they’d support her in her decision.

The Friendship Date

Prom night was a little more challenging than Chelsea had expected.  Steven didn’t like the noise level in the room where the dancing was taking place.  He mostly enjoyed standing at the front doors in the lobby watching the limos come and go as teens arrived.  Chelsea, on that night, didn’t realize that she was right in the middle of a life changer.  But she was.

Steven’s mom called Chelsea the next day and told Chelsea how much Steven had seemed to enjoy the evening.  A friendship grew as Chelsea began to make sporadic visits to Steven’s house to hang out.  She followed his lead into things that he enjoyed, basketball, wood working and equipment that digs.  He learned to make an attempt at saying her name.  He pronounced Chelsea’s name “Chs.”

Before long Chelsea went off to college to fulfill her dream of becoming a math teacher. But, as a true friend does, she took the time to visit Steven whenever she came home for breaks.  When Chelsea was a junior in college she walked back into my high school Teacher Academy classroom to share some news with me.  She grinned a little as she said these life changing words.

Guess what Mrs. E?  I’ve changed my college major.  I’ve decided to become a special educator.  

I, of course, was pleased but not even the tiniest bit surprised.   Today Chelsea is in her second year of serving in the classroom as an intervention specialist in a school not far from here.  It’s close enough that she can still be a friend to Steven; and that is exactly as it should be.  Steven and Chelsea were life changers for each other.  It was a particular joy for this teacher to watch this transformation take place.

I can feel Kelsey grinning down on all three of us.

Chelsea and Steven, Still Friends Today

still friends

TEACH…To Change Lives

Available at Amazon.com

Creating Winners in School


big vs. smallBig or Little?

There is a trend for American schools to grow larger and larger.  Population growth and the economic down turn seem to have made this a reality whether we like it or not.  It makes more economic sense to build one large building rather than to furnish and hire support staff for two, claim the advocates for large schools.  (I know this opening sounds a little boring, but keep reading I have a story to tell).

But how do these larger schools impact students?  Some argue students can be offered a greater variety of subjects and activities when only one building is involved.  But even before I am a teacher, I am a parent and a grandparent.  I wonder how my own loved ones will find a place to fit in.  In the huge school where I live you have to be to a future professional athlete to make the team.  You have to be a future All Star not to sit the bench even after you make the team.   Teens must sing like an American Idol, dance like a Broadway hoofer and act with the skill of an Oscar winner to be cast in a play.  That leaves two thousand other kids trying to find a place to fit in.  And let me make a confession right here…

I Hate Try Outs!

feeling rejected

More importantly kids hate them too.  I remember my humiliation of trying out for cheerleading six times.  (Yes, that is a sad true story.  I’m demonstrating a maturity I don’t even really feel to admit that now).  But I hate it even more for my grand kids. Before the end of their  elementary years in a building with over a thousand other students, I had two granddaughters announce, they would never try out for anything ever again.  They already felt too rejected and excluded to try to participate any further and they hadn’t even reached junior high.

Why are we making younger and younger children audition in order to even participate?  Can’t we do better than Dance Mom? Seriously, is that woman not a bully?  Why do schools have anti-bullying hot lines while that gal has a TV show?  That’s a paradox I find hard to digest.

No try outsThink Differently

We need to think in news ways…ways that will benefit all our students.  If huge schools are the new reality, how can we make all students feel included in our schools.  Let me share a story with you.

When I taught in the elementary grades my individual class put on two shows a year.  First rule:  no try outs!  Everyone was in the play or song and dance production.  I don’t just mean some kids worked behind the scenes and some were on stage.  My hard and fast rule was that every kid had a speaking part in the show.  If you happened to have a big part in one production, you had a small part in the next, fair is fair, but everyone was in.

Is that challenging for the teacher?  Sometimes.  But the benefits for the kids far out weigh the challenge.  I once had a young boy with autism.  He couldn’t generate language on his own.  He could read words off paper, but he couldn’t produce words without reading them.  So on the stage he read his ‘proclamations’ in the style of a narrator between scenes.  I had another boy who couldn’t remember lines at all, but he could show quite a bit of facial expression.  What did we do?  We had him lip sync his lines off a recording of the words while he showed lots of facial expression and body gestures.  It worked great!

When you plan productions this way, you start with the skills of the students and then proceed with your show, not the other way around.  Humor was plentiful, some planned, some not.  Our shows didn’t have the polish of a Broadway production, but they showcased our kids to the best audience in the world…their parents.   One time we did a very, very abbreviated version of The Sound of Music.  All parts were played by twenty second graders and it was over in 20 minutes.

Four years after that mini show, I ran into Alex’s mom in a local restaurant.

“I’m so glad I ran into you,” she said as she spotted me.  She then told me that her sixth grade son Alex had just been cast in the Cincinnati Opera Company’s production of Amahl and The Night Visitors.  She beamed and I was very impressed.

“But what I really wanted to tell you was what he said when he got the part.” she continued.  “He said, Mom I never would have had the nerve to try out, but after all, I already played the part of Captain Von Trapp in second grade.”

We both laughed.  But I’ve never forgotten that conversation.   In a child’s mind, both of those parts had the same importance.  Alex hadn’t realized that every kid in that second grade classroom had a part.  That tiny production gave him the courage to try out for and win a significant role on the stage.  It took my breath away.  What wonderful seeds we plant when we give a young child a chance to shine.

TEACH...To Change Lives book cover

Author’s note:  Alex was a very academically talented young man, however, he chose music as his life’s profession.  He became a jazz pianist and has played the piano at two inaugural balls in Washington DC.