Teacher's one for the books
She doesn't use her disability as an excuse not to succeed; nor will she let anyone else.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published April 1, 2007
NEW PORT RICHEY - When it comes to student complaints or excuses, special-education teacher Nichole Shuler doesn't want to hear a word.
Not "I can't do it." Not "I have a disability." Nothing like that.
"They use it as a crutch," says Shuler, in her first year at Ridgewood High School. "That's when the tough love kicks in. I say, 'Get over it. I have one, too.' They can't argue with that. I always win that battle."
Shuler, 24, limps noticeably. Her eyes squint and her cheeks twitch involuntarily. Her speech often sounds slurred or muffled.
She has severe cerebral palsy. It happened as a newborn, when her heart stopped beating for 5 minutes during surgery to repair a perforated colon. The lack of oxygen to her brain caused the condition, which kept her in special-education programs for most of her own schooling in Jacksonville.
It's what she saw in those courses, and from the people who taught them, that cemented her resolve to become a teacher.
"I did graduate with my standard diploma," Shuler explained. "I had a lot of friends who didn't go the route of the standard diploma, and they fell through the cracks. They weren't pushed. It was, 'Oh, poor thing.' That's not helping, that's hurting, because what are they going to do after school? Work at McDonald's? I wanted to help."
She has already made a difference at Ridgewood in her short tenure teaching biology to a class of mainstream special-education and "regular" sophomores, who look right past her cerebral palsy to see a favorite teacher.
"When I first met Mrs. Shuler, I was kind of timid. I was wondering what was wrong, because she obviously acts different than other teachers. She just turned out to be really normal," said Kelsi Griner, 15. "She's inspirational because she shows not to let something like that get you down."
Marlow Jones, 16, said he respected Shuler from the first day of class, because she announced her cerebral palsy before anyone could ask, told how it happened, and then moved on without missing a beat.
"Not most people would do that," he said, adding that Shuler has pushed him harder than anyone else to stay on track. "Everybody wants to be in this class. This is my favorite class of the day."
Assistant principal Shawn Hohenthaner said she could tell from the moment she got Shuler's job application that Shuler would excel. Her interview cemented her intuition.
"She was just really knowledgeable when it came to ESE and IEPs and individual laws," Hohenthaner said, referring to the alphabet soup of special-ed acronyms. IEP is individual education plan, and ESE is exceptional student education.
Other applicants for that job didn't come close.
Hohenthaner also liked Shuler's "spunky, creative" personality and her cheerful disposition. (Shuler almost always smiles, even when she's meting out discipline.)
It didn't hurt that Shuler graduated with honors from St. Petersburg College, with a degree in special-education instruction, making her a commodity in a state that struggles to fill all its special-ed teaching positions.
"She just seemed to fit the bill," Hohenthaner said.
So Hohenthaner scrambled to hire Shuler before any other school snapped her up. Shuler had applied to 10 other Pasco County schools. But in the intervening days, all of them turned her down.
The rejections racked Shuler, who recalled crying to her mom after the day she got four. She feared never getting a job.
They didn't bother Hohenthaner much, though, especially after she called one of Shuler's references who couldn't find enough superlatives to describe his former intern. Hohenthaner just knew it. Shuler belonged at Ridgewood.
"When we interviewed her, we saw something special in her," principal Randy Koenigsfeld said. "She came in and had a dynamic personality. From the beginning, we thought that would translate into the classroom, and it has."
They assigned Shuler to co-teach with veteran teacher Catherine Adair, a straight-talking, funny woman whom kids and colleagues alike call one of a kind. As Marlow Jones put it, "I can't really explain her. She's her."
They clicked immediately. It's clear in the classroom.
Adair lovingly mimics Shuler's limp. Shuler jokingly mocks Adair's age (she's 60). They end each other's sentences, support one another's decisions.
"My teaching philosophy is that we all have our handicaps. Get over it," Adair said. "That is her philosophy also. She has just fit right in."
If anyone worried about the cruelty that teenagers might show to someone who is different, their fears vanished quickly.
"The kids took to her like a duck to water. They respect her," Adair said. "If some kid does notice it who is new to the school, they say, 'Oh, she's got cerebral palsy. Move on.' "
They don't snicker in the classroom as Shuler teaches, not even when the lesson is sexually transmitted diseases. The students ask her to repeat if they don't understand what she has said, and they answer like they're supposed to.
When they do titter about some of the graphic pictures, Shuler stares.
"I don't like teaching this as much as you don't like looking at it," she intones, getting instant apologies.
Standing outside the portable classroom after class, Shuler sometimes issues stern warnings to get moving and, occasionally, to quit messing around. She's still trying to perfect her "teacher voice."
It works. The students obey with a "Yes, ma'am" or maybe a less formal, "Oh, okay," complete with eye roll.
What matters to them is not that she limps or twitches, or, for that matter, that she looks barely older than they do. She's a teacher and, for better or worse, the students treat her that way.
"She's willing to help get us through high school and make us pass and succeed in life," said Jasmine Dass, 16. "Even though, I don't want to sound mean, even though she's handicapped, she still helps a lot. ... It is my favorite class."
Shuler turns slightly pink when she hears such praise from her students and colleagues. But above it all, she's thrilled to make a difference in young people's lives.
"Some of these kids, it's not easy for them. But if they work hard, they can do it," Shuler says. "They might pull C's, but it's like an A to them. ... I hope they don't give up, because that's my whole purpose."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (813) 909-4614 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505 ext. 4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.
On the web
To view a student video profile of Nichole Shuler, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.