By Libby Schauer
For Mary Summers, teaching special education classes at Eleva-Strum High School is not simply just a job. It’s a career that she excels in, evident by the awards and praises given to her year after year.
These awards include the 2015-2016 Cardinal Pride Teaching Excellence Award, the WEAU Sunshine Award, given to Summers by her students three times, the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce Honored Educator twice (2004 and 2009) and the 2004 Chamber of Commerce Unsung Hero award winner.
Summers has been teaching special education for 16 years, dedicating all of those years to Eleva-Strum High School in Strum, Wisconsin. In this time, she has had a one hundred percent graduation rate and around seventy-five percent of her students continue their education after graduation each year, Summers said.
It is not just the impressive numbers she has achieved on paper alone that makes her a great teacher; it is also her unwavering commitment to the success of every student she teaches, even when that number of students surpasses the typical amount.
“I am the only special education teacher for grades 9-12”, Summers said. “I have a 27 student caseload, when the average at Eleva-Strum is 15-20”.
All of the students Summers teaches have a learning disability, with the exception of the ‘home room’ school hour in the morning following ‘1st hour’. An average day for Summers requires twelve different preps for the eight classes she teaches and the four students she teaches off-site through a program offered by the school.
The normal amount of preps required at Eleva-Strum High School is three to six, Summers said.
The students that Summers teaches are often inspired by her personal life story and find solace in her ability to connect with them. Summers was born premature with a severe heart murmur, causing her health complications her whole life. She was also unable to read until the 3rd grade, a learning hurdle which today helps her connect to students who have experienced similar situations through their own learning disability. Summers says it is her health that keeps her humble and her job as a special education teacher that makes her thankful.
Summers’ said she does whatever is best for the kids, expressing that it may not always be ideal or easy, but that she firmly believes that whatever is best for the student(s) should be done. She listens to her gut, but more importantly she listens to her students.
Senior Scott Sunday who participates in Summers 5th hour class titled Transition says, “Ms. Summers is an amazing teacher. She is always there to help people out if they need it. Whenever I am struggling about something or having a hard time over something she is always there for me, and I really appreciate it.”
A note Summers received from a student six years ago has been the coolest and most rewarding thing to happen to her during her time as a teacher.
“I received a note from a student saying that if she hadn’t been placed in special education classes after parent-teacher conferences one night, she had planned to take her life”, Summers said. “She wrote that she had everything planned out, including a written suicide note. I was able to provide her with a more stable education environment in which she felt understood and accepted.”
Summers says she can see herself teaching special education at Eleva-Strum High School for the rest of her teaching career, which she plans on making her whole life. The biggest hope she has for all of her students is that they are able to find a job that makes them as happy as her job makes her, Summers said.
With seventy-five percent of her students going into post-high school educational programs such as culinary, welding, business management, radiology, video broadcasting, teaching and even the police academy, Summers is proving her success as a teacher.
“She’s a great mentor. She’s a great teacher. She is the teacher to look up to. She tries to help everyone she can”, Sunday says.