About five years ago, Jim and Tobi Szewc, both teachers at Mintz Elementary in Brandon, learned they were going to have a child. At 36 weeks of the pregnancy, their doctor said their unborn child, a boy, had a heart defect that might lead to Down syndrome.
Even before Thomas James, or TJ, was born, the Szewcs knew what they would do: plan a successful future for their son. That plan would start with a colleague at Mintz, Tamara Hansen, who taught in the Early Exceptional Learning Program.
"Miss Hansen, Tammy, was our first point of contact at school helping us to prepare for TJ's arrival to educate us on Down syndrome," said Jim Szewc, who teaches fourth grade. "She also was part of our initial support network, especially before TJ's heart defect was repaired at six months. She has been amazingly helpful in getting TJ ready for school and moving him forward at a fantastic rate."
I learned about the Szewcs and Hansen after reading more than a year's worth of bad press about special-education teachers and staffers in the Tampa Bay area. I read about a child who died in the care of special-education aides and another who died after school bus personnel were slow to call 911. There was the teacher who was arrested and charged with abusing two of her students, and a bus driver accused of kicking a child down the steps of his bus, breaking the child's ankle.
There must be some good things out there in exceptional-student education, I kept thinking. And there are. I witnessed the positive side when I visited Hansen at Mintz on a recent morning. When I arrived at 7:15 a.m., Hansen was in her classroom. At 7:30, she and I, along with Barbara Cadore, the exceptional-education assistant, went out to escort the 11 pupils, 3- to 5-year-olds, to the classroom.
I saw the wide range of exceptions the children had, including speech difficulties, learning and attention problems, and irregular motor skills. The class activities were creative, well organized and fun. In the cafeteria, the children mixed with those without disabilities. Like other students, those in Hansen's class had to key in their ID numbers before getting their food, carry their trays and find a place to sit.
During recess, when several "regular peer" students went inside a classroom building, none of Hansen's kids followed. I asked why. She had instructed them not to go. She teaches them to follow directions. They will grow up in a society that will treat them differently, she said. Following directions will give them at least a modicum of protection.
Throughout the visit, I noticed that Hansen and Cadore didn't always rush to assist their children. They watched, for example, as TJ struggled to maneuver over an obstacle.
"I have a quote on my door that I preach to parents and co-workers," Hansen said. " 'Every time that you do something for children they can do for themselves hinders their independence!' We must teach our children how to do things rather than do it for them. My goal as a special-education teacher is to have my students become productive members of society.
"Learning reading, writing and arithmetic are important, but my goal for my students is to have a work ethic, empathy and good manners. I also focus on instilling the importance of having an intrinsic compass. In the real world, not everything has a prize at the end. I want them to do things to feel good inside and because it's right."
Jim Szewc said Hansen gives him and his wife hope by teaching them how to teach and by teaching their son how to learn, enabling him to become a complete person.
"TJ has developed rapidly under Tammy's care and instruction," Szewc said. "Like most kids with Down syndrome, TJ experienced delays in areas such as walking, speech and communication and the ability to control personal needs like potty training. All have greatly improved. Because of Tammy, TJ is growing into a boy who can communicate with his peers and other adults. He's learning what he needs for kindergarten. What Tammy and Barbara do each day is a complete work of art."
I left Mintz Elementary trying to imagine a fit-all rubric that evaluates teachers like Hansen who advance the quality of children's lives. How do you measure that special magic?