2018 has been a noteworthy year for Kentucky Trail Elementary special education teacher Elizabeth Hart.
In May, she was selected as the Belton School District’s 2017-18 Teacher of the Year. In June, she was recognized as one of five Kansas City area Regional Teachers of the Year, thereby making her eligible for the 2019 Missouri Teacher of the Year award.
Though Hart appreciates the recognition for her work, her attention remains focused solely on her students.
As her principal at Kentucky Trail, Alisa Seidelman has seen Hart’s commitment firsthand.
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“The passion Elizabeth has for her job is unmatched,” Seidelman said. “She literally lives and breathes serving students. She is the first person at work and the last to leave. She also goes out of her way to support her students’ families and believes they also have to be in a great place.”
A champion for those with special needs, Hart began her work as a paraprofessional more than 30 years ago. After two decades as a para, she returned to school to obtain her teaching degree, and followed that with a master’s degree in autism spectrum disorder.
“Special needs students are, and have always been, my heart,” she said. “I want to help them find ways to grow their passions, be self-advocates and be included in school and the wider community. These things are most important to me because, often, they don’t have a voice.
“For these students, every single day can be hard to get up. It can hurt, and they may not be able to communicate what they want. They try so hard. I advocate for them and also give parents the tools to be their advocates.”
Hunter Driskill and his family have experienced Hart’s advocacy and heart for her students.
“We could barely get Hunter to talk or do anything before he enrolled in Elizabeth’s kindergarten class last year. Now he talks all the time,” said Brittany Driskill, Hunter’s mother. “I saw the most remarkable difference after the first week. I look at him every day and feel so thankful for how far he has come in such a short time.”
Along with advocacy, inclusion is a key element of Hart’s teaching philosophy.
“One of the biggest challenges is to make sure special needs students are included,” she said. “They have so much to give, and I don’t want them to ever feel less valuable than anyone they come in contact with.”
As an example, Hart’s students plant and care for the school’s Tower Garden, a year-round indoor garden that includes a variety of salad-oriented vegetables. After the vegetables are harvested, her students collaborate in the salad-making process with others in the school.
The Tower Garden is just one of many activities Hart’s students are involved in, and she notes that her classroom “stays very busy.” Actually, the word “busy” is an understatement.
To begin with, each of her students has a daily individual schedule.
“Each student has a notebook that reflects their work and goals to be completed each day,” she said. “The schedules include general education and a variety therapies for each student. Balancing those with their unique needs is incredibly challenging.
“I couldn’t do my job without the paraprofessionals. We do a lot of juggling and delegating.”
This year, Hart’s students have something new to look forward to. They will launch and operate a coffee cart, where they will brew and deliver coffee to teachers one day a week.
“When they deliver the coffee, the other teachers will see their faces and learn their personalities, and the kids will get to see and be part of the community.”
Hart also finds the time and energy to make an impact outside her classroom.
“Elizabeth is an important leader in our school, and she leads in a really organic way,” Seidelman said. “She is a wealth of knowledge and leads by example in her day-to-day interactions with everyone.”
In 2018, Kentucky Trail Elementary School was named as a National School of Character by Character.org, one of only 73 schools in the United States to receive this recognition.
Seidelman said, “I asked Elizabeth to be a co-facilitator during that process because of her deep commitment to the academic, social and emotional skills of her students.
“She continually seeks out innovative practices, so she can create the perfect learning environment. She sees that her students are involved throughout the school, and that the entire school is part of their education.”
As with many teachers confronting 21st century challenges in their classrooms, Hart believes mental and emotional health issues are at the forefront.
“Now and in the future, I see mental health issues and trauma children have gone through to be the biggest issues,” Hart said “They are not being taught how to manage these, and it’s devastating to their education. At our school, we practice teaching emotional and social skills. I see these as key to life in school and beyond.”