Retired teacher receives honors

After 25 years in the classroom, Deb Gill tutors special-ed kids and helps their parents

Posted: Monday, December 06, 2004

Deb Gill, a recently retired special-education teacher in Juneau, has won a national award for her career work with students with severe disabilities.

Years ago, such children were institutionalized.

"Now they have friends in the regular classroom," Gill said. "They're accepted by their peers."

The National Center on Low-Incidence Disabilities, based in Greeley, Colo., presented Gill with an Excellence in Education Award this fall in the category of children with significant needs. She was one of five awardees from a field of about 160 nominees, the center said.

"What we're looking for is leadership, innovativeness and high-quality teaching," said Kay Alicyn Ferrell, project director at the center.

Students with low-incidence disabilities are blind or deaf or have severe disabilities such as autism or Down syndrome. Sometimes such children have more than one disability.

About 1 million American children and youth have low-incidence disabilities, according to the federally funded center, which is affiliated with the University of Northern Colorado.

"It's the kids who need every part of their day modified in some regard," Gill said.

Gill and her husband, Tom, both of whom were special-education teachers at Harborview Elementary School downtown, retired in June. Deb Gill had taught for 25 years. They now tutor spec-ed students and help parents arrange for spec-ed services in the schools.

The Juneau School District still turns to Deb Gill for her expertise, said Superintendent Peggy Cowan.

"She was a leader in special education," Cowan said. "She had a depth of knowledge and understanding of students and their needs, special-education students in particular, that is rare and special."

One of the purposes of the award is to draw on the winners' expertise because there has been so little research in the field, Ferrell said. The awardees attend a research summit, which was held this year in October in Denver, and answer questions.

"Ideally, what will happen is we'll get these ideas from the teachers who won the awards, and we'll conduct research to validate the ideas," Ferrell said.

When Gill started teaching, students with severe disabilities in Juneau were bused from around the district to a central classroom. A teacher and aide worked with about 14 students. Since the late 1980s, Juneau schools have included the children in regular classrooms in their neighborhood schools.

Now teachers in Gill's position work with the students separately part of the day, manage the instructional assistants in the regular classrooms, and help regular teachers adapt their lessons to children with severe disabilities. The method requires frequent collaboration.

Gill had taught a regular second-grade classroom in Illinois for four years before she moved to Juneau in 1978. She substituted a bit and worked as a spec-ed instructional assistant for a year, and fished commercially, which was also new to her.

"You don't do a lot of boating in northern Illinois in the cornfields," Gill said. While she was fueling her boat at a dock in Pelican, she learned she had won a full-time position as a spec-ed teacher. It was the children that attracted her to the field.

Segregated in their own classroom, students with severe disabilities might take weeks to learn how to zip up their coats. But in regular classrooms the students see their peers doing it and more quickly learn from them, Gill said. Meanwhile, the children without disabilities learn to be compassionate and caring, she said.

Gill "had a very thorough knowledge of spec-ed students and disabilities and intervention strategies that were very effective," Yanamura said.

Last year an autistic girl in first grade started the year with just one gesture, a wave, and one phrase, "bye bye." She grabbed what she wanted and pushed away what she didn't, Gill told the National Center on Low-Incidence Disabilities in her response to its questions.

Gill taught the girl to sit down and look at her. Slowly, Gill taught the girl to communicate "hi" with a gesture and say "ha." Using a song, they worked on how to communicate "yes." An exaggerated nod became a more natural nod. It was harder to teach the idea of "no." It didn't fit into the song. But Gill discovered that the girl didn't like a particular snack, and used that as a trigger. Eventually, "no" became a natural response.

The girl now can greet people and demonstrate her preferences. She is less frustrated and very proud of herself, Gill said. The smallest steps are crucial, necessary and attainable, she added.

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