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She understands

Sandra Westall tells her learning-disabled students that they can succeed. Her own life supports that claim.

By DONNA WINCHESTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Sandra Westall's classroom looks like a lot of other Pinellas County elementary school classrooms. Bookcases are jammed full of books. Plastic tubs overflow with art supplies. Bulletin boards are peppered with colorful items, including a list of classroom rules and a class mission statement.

Posters of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. flank the back wall. But on a side wall, always in the students' peripheral vision, looms a larger-than-life, head-and-shoulders portrait of Albert Einstein.

Ms. Westall continually reminds her fourth- and fifth-graders that like Einstein, they may not learn the same way others learn. But that doesn't mean they won't grow up to be somebody.

When the exceptional student education teacher at Lakewood Elementary School, 4151 Sixth St. S, tells her severely emotionally disturbed students that children with learning disabilities can succeed, she can back up her claim. She found out she was dyslexic at age 27. Ten years later, she was diagnosed with audio and visual reception problems. She can hear and see properly, but her brain doesn't process information correctly, resulting in blank spots in the information she absorbs. Like other learning-disabled people, she has had to find ways to fill in the blanks.

"I compensate, but it takes a lot of effort," she said. "I'm working all the time."

The 61-year-old educator returned recently from a two-week trip to China, where she traveled as part of a 16-member special needs education delegation sponsored by People to People Ambassador Programs. She observed special education classrooms in Beijing, Nanjing and Suzhou that catered to children with various mental, emotional and physical disabilities.

She also participated in conferences with special education instructors at the Nanjing Special Education Teacher's Training School and at the East China Normal University in Shanghai. She shared early detection and assessment methods and offered curriculum suggestions for the school system's fledgling special education master's degree program.

Before she left for China, she and her students plotted the route she would travel. She told them about some of the places she would visit, including the Great Wall. She showed them examples of Chinese brush painting and taught them to count from one to 10 in Chinese.

The geography and social studies lessons continued when she returned. She played Chinese music and passed around a clock that showed the time in St. Petersburg as well as in Hong Kong. She shared examples of Chinese arts and crafts and Chinese currency. The children gathered around her laptop to view photographs of Tiananmen Square, a Buddhist temple and pandas at the Beijing Zoo.

She made sure she told them about how she was distracted at one point and got separated from her tour group. She said it's important to be honest with them about her shortcomings so they will understand their own. It also reminds her not to take herself so seriously.

"I used to go home and say, "I wish I hadn't said that, I wish I hadn't done that,' " she said. "I was my greatest critic. I tore myself apart. It doesn't bother me anymore what people say or do because I know I do my very best. I do double time."

Ms. Westall's journey to self-acceptance began when she was a child. From the time she was an elementary school student in Miami, she had difficulty learning. She couldn't read and she had trouble concentrating. Things that made sense to her classmates didn't make sense to her, but she didn't know what was wrong. She thought she was stupid. Her teachers and the other students thought so too.

One-on-one tutoring helped her graduate from high school, but she couldn't get into college.

"I wanted to go so badly," she said. "From elementary school, I wanted to be a teacher, to go to college. Everybody laughed at me."

She applied to 30 schools, but they all turned her down. Finally, Southern Seminary Junior College, a small school in Virginia, accepted her. She discovered she was good with color and majored in merchandising, but she still wanted to be a teacher.

She took remedial classes and was accepted at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., but had to drop out for financial reasons. She landed a job as a substitute teacher for handicapped children.

One day, the mother of one of her students told her that her son was dyslexic and needed extra help. It was the first time she had heard the word. She asked the child's mother to explain.

"She gave me this book to read, and I thought, "This is me. They wrote a story about me.' "

She started teaching herself about learning disabilities. The more she found out about them, the more determined she was to be a teacher. At 39, she was accepted at Mars Hill College in Mars Hill, N.C. She worked as a waitress and drove a school bus to support herself.

"That's when I discovered how learning disabled I really was," she said.

She got permission to take the national teaching examination orally, but she still couldn't pass it. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in early childhood education but was not awarded her teaching certificate.

She began graduate studies at Appalachian University in Boone, N.C., but her teachers didn't have much faith in her, she said. When she got a B in a lesson planning class, they accused her of cheating. She said that's when she learned to fight.

She went to the dean but was told she should see a psychiatrist to get over her teaching "obsession." She went to the Pine Ridge School instead, a center for learning-disabled adolescents in Williston, Vt. After seven years, she received her master's degree in special education. She passed the national teacher exam on her eighth try.

In the meantime, she weathered an abusive, 15-year marriage to a man who called her a dummy. She raised two sons, now 28 and 30, who wrestled with their own learning disabilities. When she moved back to Miami in 1990 and interviewed at an elementary school for children with special needs, she told the administrators, "You're getting the real thing here, not something out of a book."

In 1995, she came to Lakewood Elementary, where children with exceptionalities are taught in a regular school environment. This semester, she has only six students. They stay with her all day except when her aide takes them art, music or physical education classes.

Achievement specialist Evelyn Nenno, a teacher resource at Lakewood, said that the smaller classroom meets the children's needs better than a large classroom.

"Some are slow achievers, but expectations for them are still high,' she said. "Some are quiet and withdrawn. Many have problems with social skills. Ms. Westall is a good model for them."

Ms. Westall said it comes down to loving children that sometimes are not easy to love.

"I know what it's like to be treated disrespectfully, so I go out of my way to show respect to them," she said.

She said the hardest part of her job is the fact that people underestimate children with special needs.

"People don't understand why the children can't learn to read. They think they're lazy," she said. "If they had a physical disability, people would know it. But you can't see this type of disability."

She said her greatest joy is seeing the children advance. She mainstreamed one of her students into a regular classroom earlier this year. The girl spent an hour a day in a regular classroom and progressed to a half day. By January, she was attending full time.

"I believe these children can succeed if they can learn," she said. "I give them something to work for."

She asks her students for their autographs the day they enter her classroom. Like Albert Einstein, she tells them, they may be famous someday.

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