The soft hush of students reading aloud fades after just a few minutes on Susan Henderson’s side of freestanding bookshelves in the big special education room at Evergreen Elementary School, where she welcomes a total of 30 students across all grades.
Henderson earned her K-12 teaching credential in 1988 and waited 10 years to use it, choosing to stay home while her four children were small. She lives on the Key Peninsula with her family, and her entire seven-year teaching career has been in service to Peninsula schools. Her first year, Henderson taught special education at Peninsula High School, and then found her teaching “home” with the young learners at Evergreen Elementary, where she has been ever since.
A “resource special education teacher” helps children learn strategies to control disruptive behavior and utilizes programs in reading, writing or math to fill in learning gaps to help students progress toward grade-level participation. A special-ed teacher like Susan Henderson, calmly reassuring and joyfully animated, could be just what a troubled, defeated child needs. She is unaccustomed to putting her dedication in words. “I look for the key that unlocks a student’s learning…” she begins, then turns the conversation from herself back to the children.
When a classroom teacher, school counselor, principal or parent feel a child could benefit from special education enrichment, a process with state-mandated guidelines ensues. Henderson teaches each child participant for about an hour every day; they then return to their regular classrooms. Each child has an individualized program, the culmination of care and knowledge of an entire team of people, from teacher to parent. Special-ed teachers like Henderson use it to make magic.
The first thing she and a new child do is write a story. Not just any story, but the tale of that child’s difficulty, and what the child instinctively knows about providing self-help. The telling of difficulty is necessary, but it’s not the focus.
“Everybody has things they’re good at, and things they need to work on, but what makes you valuable as a person is completely different,” says Henderson. “A student who feels powerful will learn much faster. I build students up with things they know about themselves.” She adds that if they’ve forgotten, or did not know, she helps them find the good things. Every day, Henderson and the child begin their session by reading that story about all the good things and ideas the child has inside.
Once in special education, a student remains in the program for three years, with an evaluation and updated plan completed prior to each year’s anniversary. That’s a long time for grade-schoolers to have the comfort of the same teacher helping them succeed. Such a teacher becomes a confidant, a resource the child relies upon; every victory over behavioral, emotional or academic challenge becomes a celebration.
Even with days beginning at 7:30 a.m. and ending at 5:30 p.m. or later, Henderson earned her master’s degree in elementary education two years ago, and attends classes and courses to enhance her skills. Her husband, a former science teacher, is now working toward his master’s degree in theology; their children are in middle school and high school. The family makes wilderness camping at Lake Roosevelt an annual adventure, and Henderson is learning to ski a wakeboard. “Last summer I got up one time, and came to school in September all bruised up from falling off the board!” she says, laughing.
Henderson is also a singer and songwriter for her church, where her husband is pastor. As a child in the Yakima Valley, she remembers meeting special needs’ kids; her cousin has Down’s syndrome. “Special” children have always tugged at her compassionate nature, and teaching felt just right. Recalling that math was hard for her, Henderson says, “After struggling with algebra, I felt like a failure. It took every ounce of courage I possessed to go forward and get the math I needed for college.” She understands what a toll difficulty in school can take on a child’s confidence.
An observant teacher, she noticed that many of her students have excellent spatial skills. “I can’t draw at all,” she says. So she asks new students to draw with her. The immediate boost to the children’s self-esteem results in smiles. Sometimes she asks students to help her with diagrams and charts, important tasks in assistance to Mrs. Henderson.
When pressed to explain such dedication to other people’s children, Henderson says, “I’m passionate about children. It’s inside my heart to help the children who need help the most. It’s my job to figure out what is getting in the way of a child’s ability to learn… In my mind, I picture my own kids. If they were needing help, I would want someone to work very hard and do everything they could for them. So how can I do any less for my students?”