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Beyond Boundaries

Four OCTs with disabilities share how their lives have made them the teachers they are today.

By Stuart Foxman
Photos: Courtesy of the Harsevoort Family

Photo of Kristin Plue, Ontario Certified Teacher, standing in a classroom.
Kristin Plue, OCT

On track day one year, a student asked Kristin Plue, OCT, if she competed when she was young. “I said no, I wasn’t much of a runner.” But she loved the question. “It’s fantastic when students have forgotten about my disability. They see past the challenge.”

Plue was born with spina bifida. Normally, the neural tube closes within a month of conception. With spina bifida, part of the tube doesn’t develop properly. That leads to damage in the spinal cord. Plue has a moderate case. She walks with crutches and uses orthotics, but doesn’t think about it often. It’s all she knows.

A career in education is almost as deeply ingrained. Her father was a principal, several aunts and uncles were teachers, and her stepmother is a director of education. “I wanted to be a teacher since Grade 3,” she says.

Plue has been one now for 13 years, and is a teacher-librarian at Williamsburg Public School in Whitby, part of the Durham District School Board. The school’s motto is, “We say something,” which originated as an anti-bullying creed. “It’s about not being a bystander. We stand up to make things better,” says Plue. She interprets the motto more broadly as all about empowering students.

“I try to be honest and genuine, letting them know who I am as a person, including my hearing loss. Let your students know that you’re a vulnerable human being just like they are.” — Kim Handley, OCT

That’s a huge part of what satisfies her as a teacher. “Students want to feel they’re being heard. The student voice is a big thing when children feel they can make a difference.”

Plue focuses on each student’s abilities — what they can do, not what they can’t — and how to work together to draw out the best of them. Her disability has influenced that mindset, but it’s the job of any teacher, she says.

Sometimes students ask about her physical challenge. She’ll say something like “Since I was born my muscles weren’t as strong as yours.” Plue doesn’t mind discussing her condition. “Any time we listen to people’s stories and where they come from, it’s going to have a positive impact.”

She encourages teachers to explore ways to support fellow staff who have a physical or intellectual disadvantage — but only because that’s good practice with anyone.

“Nobody should be afraid to say how they can support someone. It’s the same way they would support any colleague, student or friend — regardless of a disability.”

While Plue doesn’t run track, she does help to coach the track team at Williamsburg. (She also works with the phys-ed teacher on a dance program.) Mostly, Plue handles administrative and supervisory tasks.

Is there irony in being a track coach with spina bifida? Not to Plue. She’s a teacher first. “Having a disability,” she says, “is not who I am.”

A Sense of Belonging

Kim Handley, OCT, was 18 when she first noticed that something wasn’t quite right with her hearing, but her doctor wasn’t concerned and she didn’t investigate further. At 28, she had a hearing test and learned that she should have had hearing aids years before.

Today, Handley has severe hearing loss and wears powerful hearing aids. She now knows that hearing loss is genetic in her family. She’s the only one of her generation, but two cousins in the next generation have progressive hearing loss. So do her sons, ages 14 and 16. In addition, one son has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the other a learning disability. Raising her sons has had a more profound effect on her teaching than her own hearing loss.

“Never underestimate what a disabled person can do. Show them the way, give them the tools and language, and progress will show over time. If I can do it, they can do it too.” — Eric Grenier, OCT

“The years of supporting them through school and trying to navigate the Special Education system helped me to see the individual needs of each child in my classroom and also understand the parents’ perspectives,” she says.

Handley has taught many subjects with an emphasis on math, phys-ed and art, and this year moved into a Special Education resource teacher position at Parkview Public School in Lindsay, part of the Trillium Lakelands District School Board. If anything, her disability has helped her to seem more human to students over the years.

“I try to be honest and genuine, letting them know who I am as a person, including my hearing loss. Let your students know that you’re a vulnerable human being just like they are. Every student has their own struggle. Finding what works for each one to overcome it is what makes our job difficult, and at the same time so satisfying.”

For Handley, teaching has never just been about grades. “More important is a sense of belonging and confidence, when I see students go out of their comfort zone and feel the reward of challenging themselves.”

She recounts the story of one student who was on the autism spectrum and several years behind in his literacy level. Handley knew that he was highly intelligent but limited due to his reading and writing skills. Working with the Special Education team, she secured a computer with speech-to-text. “Once he saw what he could do he blossomed and went from struggling to engaged. The smile we had rarely seen was now there almost all the time and he began building relationships with other students.”

Another student, Handley recalls, was just getting by, though underachieving and withdrawing from his learning. She knew he was a fantastic big brother and says, “We talked about that a lot, and I encouraged him.” By year’s end he was a straight-A student and continues to be. He found his confidence.

Both stories reflect how Handley strives to connect with her students.

“I try to find where I can help them meet their potential by pushing themselves,” she says. “Something as simple as letting kids know they have a fresh start, or that you’ve looked forward to having them in class, can go a long way to building a positive teacher-student relationship.”

Never Stop Believing

When he was a classroom teacher, Eric Grenier, OCT, had a fundamental belief: “Have faith in the student,” he says. “You never know what the outcome will be in the future for students. Never stop believing in them.”

Now, Grenier shows that same conviction as a resource consultant for the Ministry of Education. He is attached to the Centre Jules-Léger, which runs a provincial school for the deaf and a demonstration school for students with severe learning disabilities. It also supports French-language school board staff by providing programs and services for students with special needs.

Grenier, based in Sudbury, supports five school boards, with a focus on hearing-impaired students. His varied roles include offering training to staff around serving such students, teaching sign language, advising on IEPs, and making recommendations on strategies or adaptations to suit student needs.

He has a particular appreciation for those needs as someone who has had a hearing impairment his entire life. Grenier was born in Sudbury, and raised in Val Therese and Casselman, Ont. As a teen, he never planned to be a teacher. In high school, he worked as a labourer for his father and other contractors who were bricklayers. Then he set out to lay his own career foundations, but without knowing what would ultimately be built upon them.

In university in Ottawa, Grenier first studied psychology, then volunteered for the Association Ontarienne des Sourd(e)s francophones. It subsequently hired him as a literacy co-ordinator. He felt good working with the deaf community, but eventually decided to return to school. He studied commerce and political science, and after graduating had trouble finding a job. “I applied to many places and for some, my hearing affected their decision,” he suspects.

One day, a friend at the Canadian Hearing Society told Grenier about a position teaching hearing-impaired students for the Conseil scolaire catholique Franco-Nord. He was hired and went to Laurentian University to become a qualified teacher. He worked closely with individual students, following one in Sturgeon Falls from kindergarten to Grade 6.

“In my eyes, we are all the same,” he says. “We all [face the same challenges]; we are all struggling. The secret is to keep a smile — it warms the heart and soul — and bond with everyone, regardless of who they are.”

Grenier says his background brings professional advantages and disadvantages. “In my job, I have unique strengths that a hearing teacher doesn’t have — my hearing loss. I understand what hard of hearing and deaf students live through. The downside, in my opinion, is that many hearing people only see me as a deaf teacher, unable to teach in other areas.”

“I’ve learned that limitations are beatable. There’s nothing that can’t be figured out with time and creativity. I can demonstrate that there’s a solution to every problem.” — Pieter Harsevoort, OCT.

Still, Grenier is used to overcoming adversity. He recalls his own days as a “Never underestimate what a disabled person can do. Show them the way, give them the tools and language, and progress will show over time. If I can do it, they can do it too.” — Eric Grenier, OCT June 2017 | Professionally Speaking 45 student, when he often struggled in school. “At some point, it was hard for me to accept my deafness. There were ups and downs, but I made it with determination.”

He sees the same resolve in many of the students he now encounters, and urges his fellow teachers to recognize that. “Never underestimate what a disabled person can do,” says Grenier. “Show them the way, give them the tools and language, and progress will show over time. If I can do it, they can do it too.”

The Tools to Perform

How much thought do you put into getting into a book? Not reading it, but literally opening the pages. As a boy, Pieter Harsevoort, OCT, had to plan it out. “The cover was too heavy, so I needed to find a ruler or stick for leverage. I’ve had a lifetime of adaptation.”

Harsevoort, who taught in Hamilton until his untimely death in January, suffered from a degenerative neuromuscular disease called spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). He used a wheelchair and relied on assistance with tasks like dressing and feeding. The disadvantages of SMA are obvious, yet living with his condition also shaped an effective teacher.

“I’ve learned that limitations are beatable. There’s nothing that can’t be figured out with time and creativity. I can demonstrate that there’s a solution to every problem.”

Harsevoort worked at Timothy Christian School, an independent, K to 8 faith-based school, where he taught Grade 8 history and Special Education students, and ran a chess club.

The SMA diagnosis came around Harsevoort’s first birthday, and his motor muscles progressively wasted away. He called his life ordinary: “I don’t know anything different.”

From a young age, Harsevoort was drawn to teaching. He loved learning and working with children, and also felt that his disability would be irrelevant in the classroom. Instead, he could rely on his communication skills to build rapport with his students and apply what he knew about problem-solving.

“I never questioned whether I could do it, because I knew I could,” Harsevoort believed.

In his classrooms, he created an atmosphere where students could learn about both their strengths and where they can grow.

“They should be prepared for success, but ready to treat failure as something that allows them to stretch their knowledge,” he said. “Nothing feels better than seeing a student understand a concept or demonstrate a skill after hours of work, study and practice.”

His personal story helped him to see students as able to meet challenges, and his presence allowed them to demonstrate empathy.

“In many ways, I rely on my students to be my arms and legs. If I need supplies, handouts distributed or notes written on the board, I use student volunteers. The children love being helpful. It’s a good habit to instil, to help those in need. Students get a look at someone whose life is very different. That’s the way to learn about diversity.”

Although he relied on assistance from his students, Harsevoort required relatively few accommodations. He used a microphone, as his voice wasn’t strong enough to project for the length of the classroom, and he needed enough space between the desks to manoeuver his wheelchair.

Profile photo of Pieter Harsevoort, Ontario Certified Teacher.
Pieter Harsevoort, OCT

Like using a lever to open a book, people just require the instruments to succeed, Harsevoort said. “All you need as a learner is to be put in the right environment and given the right tools to perform. That’s our job as teachers; provide the conditions for our students to develop and grow.”