Ezra Eby Elementary special education teacher Kathy Dean helps a student.
By John Hummer
For teachers teaching during a pandemic and for students learning during a pandemic, there are obvious challenges for everyone involved, including parents of students. But for one subset of students – those with learning disabilities – a whole new layer of challenges is thrust upon them, their teachers, and their parents.
Kathy Dean, shown in photo, a veteran teacher of special education classes at Napoleon’s Ezra Eby Elementary, has met those challenges head-on. She explained that during some of the online-only periods of instruction due to COVID-19, some of the curriculum that is used for special education students is not available online.
“We had to develop it to best meet the needs of our kids,” Dean said.“When you teach special education, there are many times when you have to provide accommodations or adapt some of the lessons.” Dean has 19 students in her class ranging from kindergarten through fifth grade. There are 1.5 additional teachers allocated for special education students at Eby.
With those adaptations, she says, different teaching materials need to be created covering the same topics and data as required in the curriculum, but in a digital format since COVID. “When you teach students who learn differently that have a learning disability, you may have to change the presentation style,” she noted. Those changes are to best fit the needs of her students.
“I’m certainly not alone in this,” Dean said. “All teachers have had to make changes and develop special ways of teaching.The key to survival this year is that everyone has had to be flexible, understanding that some things are not going to go as planned. One week you could be face-to-face, the next week you have to be prepared in advance to teach fully online if your school has to go remote.” Though school is back too face-to-face, Dean still teaches both in-school and online since some families have elected to stay with remote learning. (More below.)
Kathy is shown helping a student.
Dean emphasized that for special education students, there was an additional adjustment period, noting that students with learning challenges often learn best face-to-face and with hands-on curriculum and manipulative visuals that can be put right in front of them. “When everything went digital, a lot of those hands-on experiences became limited – just through a computer – which provides great visuals but doesn’t allow actual experience,” she stated.
Nonetheless, her students have been very receptive to the online, computer-based curriculum, thanks in large part to the help of parents.“We have such a great parent community base in our district,” she says. “They have been so supportive.”
Dean noted that it has been a challenge to ensure that students have the technology they need with issues of internet connectivity. “Unfortunately, that can affect how they comprehend a lesson. That can be hard.”
Dean has also purchased a lot of extra supplies andmaterials, so her students don’t have to take their materials out of her classroom for extra safety precautions during COVID.“I really just wanted that to be a safety measure in my classroom for students just as a way to provide another layer of protection for their health,” she said.
Dean grew up in Brooklyn, Mich. and graduated from Columbia Central High School in 1988. She then attended Eastern Michigan University and obtained her bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1993. She also has a degree in special education serving the cognitively impaired community. Dean went on to earn her master’s degree in special education from EMU as well in 1997.
Dean began teaching in the fall of 1993 at Ezra Eby Elementary in Napoleon. She is now in her 28th year of teaching – all with Napoleon Community Schools.
“The time I have spent in special education has been, by far, a growing experience for me,” she says. “I have created so many friendships with families. Working with students that have challenges with learning or cognitive impairment brings me so much joy when I see a child make progress, when I see them grow. To know that I could have had an impact on their growth – that’s all the joy I need.”
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Speaking for all teachers, Dean added, “You want to make sure that the effort, time, and energy you pour into your lessons – your goal is to make a lasting impact on that student. Your goal is to make sure that student becomes as independent as possible – a motivator, a seeker of information. You want them to look back on their year with you and say, ‘Wow, my year in Mrs. Dean’s room was amazing.’ You want those children to really enjoy their own educational process. If you can be a part of that, that’s awesome.”
Dean has had some of her students all the way from K-5. “I’ve had the ability and the privilege of working with families for multiple years in a row – and that’s a gift. You really get to see the longevity of a child’s growth – it’s very rewarding.”
Ezra Eby Elementary Principal Mike McGonegal has worked with Dean for many years at the school. “Kathy Dean is dedicated and works hard to make sure that all the needs of all the kids and their families are met,” he said. “When it comes to the staff, she is a tremendous support for the teachers at Eby. If they need ideas, she’s always there to give them suggestions. She’s a tremendous part of the team.”
Though Deanfeels she has a lot more to give to the Napoleon Community Schools, she still has dreams for her future sometime down the road. “I just haven’t decided what I want to do because it’s off in the future,” she noted. “I would love to be able to share some lessons I’ve learned along the way, and hopefully turn those lessons into tools for somebody else just entering the teaching world. There’s so many different avenues that teachers have to share their knowledge that they’ve gained over the years.”
But for now, Napoleon Schools is her focus. “Right now, I still feel like I have so much more to give. I’m still so energetic, I love being with the students, and I love being in this community,” adding, “It is so joyful to be in a building where your staff is a family. We hang out in school, we hang out outside of school, we support each other’s kids, and we really enjoy being with each other as colleagues and as friends. It is a gift.”
Dean and her husband of 24 years, Don, have two children – a set of 22-year-old twins: Connor is a senior at Ferris State University studying automotive management and design. Madison is a recent graduate of Saginaw Valley State University and is a registered nurse in the ICU trauma ward at Henry Ford Allegiance Health in Jackson. They live on Big Wolf Lake.
In her spare time, Dean loves spending time on the lake in all seasons. That could be fishing, water skiing with the Wolf Lake Water Ski Club, or cross-country skiing. “We’re on that lake all the time.”
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