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Teacher wheels through classroom challenges

Moving through the halls of Lecanto Primary School, Dave Douglas, or "Mr. D" as he is affectionately called, is warmly greeted by students and teachers. Douglas has been interning, supervised by fifth-grade teacher Lee Mulder, at Lecanto since August and he feels very comfortable there.

At 38, he's getting a late start as a beginning teacher, and because he is in a wheelchair, the school has made some adjustments to accommodate him.

"The school's been very helpful to me," Douglas said. "They've done everything to make me feel a part of the staff. That's just the way people are here."

Douglas will finish his internship at Lecanto on Dec. 12. In the meantime, he's gaining teaching experience in the classroom. Being in a wheelchair has not been a hindrance to his work.

"When he first meets a group," Mulder said, "he sits them down and lets them ask questions to make them more comfortable."

"Kids adapt very well," Douglas said.

April Curran, 10, a student, sees no problem at all.

"He's no different just 'cause he's in a wheelchair," she said. "He's still just like us deep down."

"He's wonderful," said her classmate Sam Jones, 12. "He's just like everybody else, except that he teaches in a better way."

"I usually teach them with themes," Douglas said, "so that it relates to their lives, it's fun, and they don't realize they're doing work. One of the points I try to make is I will not raise my voice or discipline them right away."

Instead, he says, he takes a few minutes and handles the problem later, calmly talking to the students about what happened.

"I can get tough, though, can't I, Sam?" he asked his student.

"Oh yeah," Sam replied.

Entering teaching later in life, Douglas said, isn't because of his cerebral palsy, which has contributed to the equilibrium problem that has him in a wheelchair. He actually decided to become a teacher about three years ago, although he has known for some time that he wanted to work with children. In the meantime, he went to school and has worked at a variety of jobs.

After finishing high school in Orlando, he entered Valencia Community College and then attended the University of Florida to study sociology. Just nine credits short of graduating, he became ill with pneumonia. That, coupled with financial difficulties, stopped his college education in its tracks.

At that point, an uncle who lived in Las Vegas invited him to come there for a job opportunity.

"I became undercover security for one of the hotels out there," Douglas said.

Later he returned to Florida to be with his mother, who lived in Clearwater at the time.

"I went to work for Olin Mills (and) the Pinellas Apartment Association," said Douglas, who worked two jobs simultaneously. "I've never been afraid of work."

His next job was at Pensacola Junior College, where he was a coordinator of student tutoring, followed three years later by a job at Florida State University. At FSU he was a disabled-student testing coordinator, helping students with learning disabilities find ways to succeeed on tests.

Then one Thanksgiving he went to his mother's, who then lived in Crystal River. She introduced him to Katie, who would become his wife.

He decided he liked the community, so he moved to Citrus County and his mother helped him become a substitute teacher.

"Katie and I started dating," Douglas said, "and about 2{ years later we were married."

He put Katie through school and she is now a surgical technologist.

"When she realized that I wanted to teach," Douglas explained, "she said, "You put me through school, Why don't I do the same?"'

Jim Arnold, his professor at Saint Leo College, has been very impressed with Douglas' progress.

"He's got a great attitude of helping kids and understanding where they are at this stage of their lives," he said. "He's got such a wholesome attitude and I think it's great that he brings it to kids."

Douglas hopes to begin work on his master's degree in January. He is considering working in special education, where special needs children would see him as a role model to overcome their disabilities. But, he also sees the value of being a disabled teacher in a regular classroom, a lesson in acceptance.

"I don't have a problem with any child," he said, "because I'm open with them."

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