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SSD Teacher Vicki Nelson Named Finalist for Missouri Teacher of the Year


“I am so excited about this opportunity. I'm so proud to represent my students, my colleagues and the district.”

That was Vicki Nelson's reaction when she learned the news that she was chosen as one of six finalists for the Missouri Teacher of the Year.

Nelson, a teacher at Litzsinger School, was the 2010 SSD Teacher of the Year. In August, her application was submitted to the Missouri State Teacher of the Year committee. Among the dozens of applications from throughout the state, Nelson's was selected as one of six finalists.

Nelson will travel to Jefferson City Monday, Aug. 22 to interview for the honor of being named 2011 Missouri Teacher of the Year.

Here is an excerpt from the state application that helped earn Vicki state recognition:

“I can remember three things I wanted to be when I grew up: a ballerina, an archeologist, or a teacher. Being a teacher moved to the top of the list when I saw the movie, “The Miracle Worker.” Most people remember the last scene when Anne Sullivan is pumping water from the well and finger spelling W-A-T-E-R into Helen Keller's hand. However, the scene that most impacted me was the dinner sequence when Anne and Helen are having the “spoon fight.” I remember Helen walking around the dinner table using her hands to grab food from everyone's plate, and the family just allowing this to happen. Anne Sullivan was appalled. She expected Helen to sit at the table and eat with a spoon like everyone. She saw the child not the disability.

While in high school I participated in a work-study program. The “Miracle Worker” was playing in my head when I signed up to work in a school. I thought I wanted to work with students who were blind, but I was offered a placement in a classroom for students with orthopedic impairments. One student used a headstick to push the keys on a typewriter to communicate. This was the first time I had ever been around someone who could not talk. It also was the first time I had ever witnessed a child work so hard just to be part of the class. I was forever changed by this student's determination. My career path was set. I wanted to become a teacher. I enrolled at the University of Missouri - Columbia, graduated, and was immediately offered a position at Special School District.

My first years of teaching were crazy, enjoyable, hectic, scary, rewarding, and I must admit, pretty much a blur. I felt so confident as a young teacher. However, I struggled with how to teach my students to read, write and communicate. I knew they needed an alternative to the materials I was using. I began to research the topics of augmentative communication, assistive technology, and computer-aided instruction. In fact, my greatest contributions and accomplishments during my teaching career were the result of my quest to find these tools and supports for my students. Early in my career, curriculum available on the market was not designed for students who were non-verbal, so I made my own. Years later, I won the “Incentive for School Excellence Program” grant. This grant allowed me to purchase specialized computer software and hardware. In addition, I was able to refine and share all the literacy and language materials I had created; all of which evolved into the "Litz Read Program.” Currently there are 31 “Litz Read” units uploaded to my district's server. I continue to add new units every year, and they are available to hundreds of teachers across St. Louis County.

The idea of using technology in the classroom was new when I first started teaching. I started with one computer that most of my students could not access. I took trainings and wrote grants to obtain the adaptations needed to make the computer the vital tool that it has become. The computer is their pencil. A classroom of students cannot share one pencil and effectively learn. Currently, every child in my classroom has his or her own computer with adaptations specific to each of his or her access needs. Over the course of my 30 years in education, the technology that my students use continues to change and new technology constantly appears on the market. A few years ago, when my district began exploring the use of iPods, I was asked to develop a use for them in my classroom. I created training videos for each of my student's communication devices and transferred the videos onto each student's iPod allowing them and their parents to learn the fundamentals of the device at home. This year, I have been exploring the many uses of the iPad. My students are technology dependent. It is how they are able to demonstrate to the world that they are capable. I continue to be excited and inspired by these new tools.

Recently, I had a meeting with the school psychiatrist. He had been observing several children in my classroom over the course of the school year. After the latest observation he said to me, “I am always amazed to see the things your students are doing. It would be easy to write them off if I didn't see them doing their work on their computers.” Giving the students the right tools and support not only allows them to access the curriculum, it also allows people to see and appreciate their true potential. People are able to see that they can learn and that they are capable. This is one of my greatest joys.

The needs of my students are my inspiration, and that inspiration has driven me to accomplish great things throughout my career in education. Their needs inspired me to develop a language-based curriculum imbedded in a literacy program. Their needs inspired me to learn new technologies and to become computer-literate. Their needs inspired me to become skilled in assistive technology and ultimately to obtain a master's degree in computer education.

Although I have made many contributions during my career - obtaining $25,000 in grants for technology, introducing and modeling the use of this technology for others, opening my classroom for observations, being the featured classroom in several of Special School District's tax levy campaigns, creating and sharing literacy materials, and becoming a resource for other struggling teachers - the accomplishment I am most proud of is providing students with the proper tools and support to move them from being passive learners (just auditing life) to active participants.

I am so thankful that so many years ago I did not see a movie about archeology or dancing because I hate getting dirty, and quite frankly, I would look ridiculous in a tutu. It is fitting that it was “The Miracle Worker” because it set me on the path to education. Teaching is what I was meant to do - it is who I am.”

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Special School District of St. Louis County (SSD) is a leader in providing special education services to students with disabilities and also provides a wide range of career and technical education programs.
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