Rock Hill High special ed teacher wins state honor

dworthington@heraldonline.comFebruary 14, 2013 

  • Want to go?

    The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2889 in Rock Hill will honor Lynn Helms with the state’s National Citizenship Education Teacher Award at 10 a.m. Saturday at the post headquarters, 732 W. Main St.

    Helms is the first state winner from District 5, which covers York, Chester, Lancaster and Kershaw counties.

— On Saturday, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2889 in Rock Hill will honor Lynn Helms as the state winner of the National Citizenship Education Teacher Award for grades 9 to 12.

Helms, a special education teacher at Rock Hill High School, will be eligible for the national VFW honors.

Helms’ boss at Rock Hill High, principal Ozzie Ahl, says Helms is one of the best. Her passion inspires both students and teachers.

“She doesn’t tell you what to do,” Ahl said. “She pulls it out of you. You get there because you want to.”

Helms, who has been teaching at Rock Hill High for 20 years and 40 years overall, said simply she has been “just doing my job.”

The award, though, is as much for Helms as it is for the hundreds of children who have been affected by her caring style. The award is for students such as Brian, Brandi, Barry, Andre and Dion, Helms said.

Brian was one of the first to convince her that teaching was what she ought to do.

Helms was an 18-year-old Head Start teacher when she met Brian. She got the job at a young age because she had already been working with children with disabilities for two years.

The children Helms worked with “filled my heart” and took away her self-pity, she said.

Brian’s mom brought him to register for Head Start. Helms remembers a quiet, shy, blond boy. To engage him, she picked up a puppet and started talking with him, asking questions. Brian responded, and his mother “burst into tears,” Helms remembers. Those were the first words Brian had ever spoken.

Brandi was a smiling child Helms met when she was a preschool teacher for a United Way program for orthopedically disabled children. Brandi did not have arms or legs, but that didn’t stop her, Helms said.

“She was my sunshine and my inspiration because, despite her impairment, every day, Brandi would come to school, smiling, singing and laughing.”

Brandi taught Helms that children born with disabilities don’t know they are disabled.

“That’s their normal. We infringe upon them,” Helms said.

Barry was a student Helms met during recess when she was teaching fourth grade in Pickens County. Barry had lost part of an arm in an accident. She asked him how he was doing in his classes, and Barry responded he was failing his classes. He didn’t have a pencil, and no one would lend him one.

Helms said she went to the principal and asked to have Barry transferred to her class. She helped him get caught up on his studies, and he soon became an honor roll student.

“How hard is it to care?” Helms said of the experience.

Helms became a traditional fourth-grade teacher to show that it was possible to educate students with disabilities in “mainstream” classrooms. She taught fourth grade for six years.

Among her students was Andre, a boy with potential – and a mischievous streak. That earned Andre a seat next to Helms “so I could easily keep him on task.”

When Andre reached middle school, he returned to Helms’ class and told her he was an honor roll student, that Helms had taught him “how to love learning.”

Helms started crying and put her arms around him.

When her husband took a job in Charlotte, Helms started teaching at Rock Hill High School. At first, she was intimidated by the size of the students. The kids were bigger than she was, and many of the students in the exceptional education department had attitude problems.

The baddest of the bad boys was Dion – and he was in her class.

Helms was assigned a classroom, but not much more. There wasn’t a special education curriculum. The books the children had – if they had books – were those no longer needed in middle school. There wasn’t even a diploma for the students; all they could earn at the time was a certificate of attendance, Helms said.

Helms talked to Dion. He said he was bored in class; he had been looking at the same textbook for three years. Helms asked him what he wanted to learn. He said algebra, the subject his friends were studying.

She got the high school textbook, and she and Dion started studying – and learning – algebra. Soon, Dion was asking for and taking other textbooks home. His actions motivated other students, Helms said.

“The more children learn, the less behavior problems we have,” she said.

The experience with Dion – and with Brian, Brandi, Barry and Andre – taught Helms lessons she still uses in the classroom.

She is a support teacher, accompanying students into mainstream classrooms to help them and others learn.

It’s one of the toughest jobs for a special education teacher, Ahl said, who started his career in special education at Northwestern High School.

“We don’t expect support teachers to understand everything that’s being taught,” he said.

But Helms sees it as a lifelong learning experience. She learns with her students and works hard to keep ahead of them. Many of them have difficulty transitioning to new material.

Her efforts to keep ahead of her students, Helms said, would make her a good candidate for “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” With everything she has learned “I could win at least $20,000,” she said.

As head of the exceptional education department, Helms is responsible for about 290 students. As department head, she worked to develop the district’s occupation diploma. She also worked with Winthrop University to give her students a chance to take classes or work on campus.

Most of all, she has dedicated herself to removing the stigmas associated with special education.

She does that by listening to her students and their parents.

“Everyone has a story,” Helms said. “If you don’t know their story – in and out of school – you won’t be effective.”

When she evaluates students and their needs, she considers their parents.

“I’m responsible for all 290 special education students at Rock Hill. If I was their mom, what would I want?” she said.

Results come, she said, when teachers respect their students and show they care.

“They know when you care,” Helms said of her students. “My students know that, and the best hugs I get are the one in the hallways, my students are not afraid to be seen with their special ed teacher.”

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066

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