Miss Kim has changed my life because she is an awesome teacher. She started teaching me in 1st grade and I’m now in 3rd grade. She has taught me through a pandemic and multiple surgeries of mine (including brain surgery) and has always worked so hard to make sure that I was learning as much as I could but that I also felt loved and cared for. I’m used to feeling a little different. I have a service dog, I used a power wheelchair and I have medical needs at school even though I’m in a typical 1-3rd grade classroom. Miss Kim has always made any changes that needs to happen so that I’m included. In first grade she even managed my tube feeds and my oxygen canister for me! She learned how to connect my tube feeds and never missed a feed. She even did it while teaching me a lesson in math once. This year I missed a lot of school because of surgeries and Miss Kim organized the class to send me jokes before my surgery so I had a joke a day to open for an entire month! She made packets of school work for me weekly and always checked in to make sure I had everything I needed and offered me opportunities to Zoom into the classroom to talk to friends, join circle time and lunch time. She also reached out to my mom to let her know that she was thinking of us, which made my mom smile. I love Miss Kim. She’s the first teacher who knows that even though I have medical stuff that I’m still smart and can do a lot. She pushes me really hard and makes me work! Sometimes I complain because I’m tired (I only go to school half days because of my medical condition) but she knows how hard to push and when to let me rest. With my half days I’m still caught up with the class and that’s because of her. She never forgets me even when I’m not there (if she reads a book when I’m not there it’s on my seat when I come the next day so I can read it. If the butterflies come out of the chrysalises and I’m not there then she sends an email with pictures. If they do a fun project she packages up all the pieces and gets it sent home to me so I can do it too.) I always tell people that my disability isn’t the problem, it’s accessibility that’s the problem. Not in Miss Kim’s class. She’s all about inclusion and making me feel like each student is both unique and part of the group. No one is ever excluded even if they need to be taught differently. I love that about her. In a Montessori classroom lots of learning includes the use of things called manipulatives. It’s a way to touch your lesson as you do it. With my disability I have a difficult time with that. So she has adapted all her lessons and changed her teaching methods to customize them for me. And it always works! I’m learning so much! As this year comes to an end I’m going to move away from Miss Kim’s classroom. I’m nervous because she’s always inspired me to try my best even when I felt too tired to try. Because of her I want to be an astrophysicist (she encouraged me to do research into the 4th and 5th states of matter even though our class only learned about the first 3 states of matter!). It made me feel so smart and I fell in love with quantum physics, Einstein’s theories, Neil deGrass Tyson, and the cosmos. All because of her! Most third grade teachers wouldn’t encourage their students to literally, or figuratively, I can’t figure out which one, reach for the stars. She does. She also has encouraged my poetry and as a result I was published in magazines and won some awards. She inspires me to keep going and keep trying harder. I hope that even though I’m not in her class next year that she can still talk to me and help me like that. I’ll miss her a lot. I’m excited to nominate Miss Kim. She’s the best teacher.
Harrison Gattis's Nomination of Kim Watson
“We’re all unique, and everyone has some sort of challenge. Sometimes you can see right away what their challenge is and sometimes you may not, but just because it isn’t visible doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”
After Kim Watson taught her class of first- through third-graders a lesson about three states of matter—solid, liquid, and gas—she took aside one student. “There’s a fourth state,” she whispered to 9-year-old Harrison Gattis. “Go look it up.”
With those words, Kim struck a match to tinder. At home that afternoon, Harrison discovered the properties of plasma; he then moved on to the elusive fifth state, known as Bose-Einstein Condensate, which launched him on a self-directed journey toward particle physics and astrophysics. He’s now learning the theory of relativity (“General,” he qualifies. “I haven’t gotten to special relativity yet.”) and has his sights set on becoming an astrophysicist.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story referred to the Bose-Einstein Condensate as the fourth state of matter, omitting plasma. Upon reading it, Harrison asked his mother to email the author: “Bose-Einstein Condensate is the 5th state of matter. Plasma is the 4th. You know, it’s really weird to correct adults.”
Though it may be unusual for a third grader to be studying relativity, Harrison says he is “used to feeling a little different.” He has a rare type of muscular dystrophy as well as a mitochondrial disorder, which together significantly deplete his strength and endurance. He is only able to attend school for two-and-half hours a day and uses a wheelchair while there to conserve his energy for learning. Harrison also brings with him supplemental oxygen, tube feeds, and IV infusions as well as a devoted Labradoodle named Miles who serves as an extension of Harrison, picking things up, delivering things around the classroom, and even alerting when Harrison’s heart rate or oxygen get too low. His mother, Sarah Gattis, rounds out the team by accompanying Harrison to school each day to attend to his medical needs. “It’s a lot of gear,” says Sarah with a laugh.
Despite such daunting physical obstacles, Harrison’s spirit remains undimmed. “Harrison is my super outgoing kid,” Sarah says. “He’s very funny, loves to be the center of attention, and he’s extremely smart.” He wears his curls in a faux hawk and had his ears pierced last summer. “He’d wanted them pierced forever, so we finally did it in August,” Sarah says bemusedly. To commemorate his recent brain surgery, he had a shirt made that says, “Brain Surgery: Been There, Done That.” His favorite books? “Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry; Astrophysics for People in a Hurry; War and Peace,” he deadpans. That answer captures Harrison’s most essential qualities: a precocious and powerful intellect paired with a sparkling sense of humor. And while he may not be reading Tolstoy just yet, he is perfectly serious about studying Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s astrophysics tomes, both for children and adults.
“Instead of focusing on his limitations, he has always found a way around it,” Sarah says. “It has been awe-inspiring to watch. That’s the part of him that I like the most. He loves, loves, loves education: he just soaks it up, and he seeks out learning outside of school.”
“I’ve never steered away from a challenge if it was going to help me reach my goals with a child.”
The Gattis family first got to know Kim in the summer before Harrison and his twin sister Grace began first grade at Sterling Montessori, a K-8 public charter school in Morrisville, North Carolina. Because Sterling has mixed-age classrooms, Kim would be their teacher for the next three years. “Kim met with us before the school year started and said, ‘Let’s figure out what we need to do to make this work,’” Sarah recalls. “And I was so relieved, because I knew she had a plan for Harrison. And for Grace. And not only that, she had a plan like that for every single kid in the class.”
Grace was instrumental in helping Harrison settle into Kim’s classroom. “They have such a special relationship,” Kim remembers. “When he needed something, Grace would just appear. You would think she wasn’t paying attention, and then there she was. It was beautiful.”
Over the next three years, Kim diligently nurtured and challenged Harrison’s voracious appetite to learn. “Harrison had different needs than I had experienced previously in my career,” Kim admits. “But I’ve never steered away from a challenge if it was going to help me reach my goals with a child.”
And Kim’s goals for Harrison were sky high. “Previously, teachers didn’t push him. I think they were afraid to push him,” Sarah says. “But Kim has never been afraid to push his boundaries. She knows he can do more, she wants him to see what he can really do. And then he really is motivated to show her what he can do, what he’s capable of.”
Kim Watson didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a teacher; but over the years she found that the part of every job and experience she liked best involved teaching, from helping her younger brother with his school work to training new hires at the restaurant where she worked. Kim earned her teaching degree and then worked for a few years as a substitute teacher and support staff before getting a job as a third-grade teacher at another school. After seven years, Kim felt frustrated and burned out: “I had reached a place where I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do; I wasn’t able to meet the needs or follow the interests of my students because of testing requirements. There was just so much testing.” With a heavy heart, she resigned. “I didn’t think I would ever go back to teaching,” she says.
A decade after she left teaching, Kim’s own son got a spot through the lottery at Sterling Montessori, where she found a school culture that mirrored her own beliefs about education. She put herself through Montessori training and has been teaching at Sterling for the past eleven years.
Kim’s philosophy as a teacher has always been to “follow the child;” and she found that at Sterling, she was able to let the interests and passions of every child direct her teaching. “Kids can play a huge role in their own learning. As educators, we can be very focused on what curriculum is in front of them, but if we take a step back, they can show us what it is they need, and it’s often not what we think they need.”
“It’s not my disability that’s the problem, it’s accessibility."
Because the Montessori method involves so many many tactile experiences, Kim has had to think creatively about how to give Harrison those same experiences and prompts when his physical needs and abilities were different from his peers. She made him a special cart so that all of the supplies were readily available to him, and she adapts the lesson plans to accommodate Harrison’s abilities. “She changes her teaching strategies for him so that he can access the materials in a different way than his peers do,” Sarah says.
“It’s not my disability that’s the problem, it’s accessibility,” says Harrison, who has become an outspoken advocate for disability awareness. And to Sarah, that is what is most remarkable about Kim’s teaching: “She makes his learning accessible,” she says. Kim’s eagle-eyed attention to Harrison’s physical needs allows him to access the full range of his intellectual capacity. For example, when Kim noticed that Harrison’s hands were tiring too quickly to write, she got him a voice-to-text computer and encouraged him to try poetry—for which he has since won awards.
After three years in the classroom together, Kim and Harrison “got to know each other on a deeper level,” Kim says. “I can’t imagine going back [to a non-Montessori school] and losing them after a year—that’s just when you start to know who they are. The second year you build that relationship, and the third year it takes off. You really have to have that time to get to know the child to be able to help them the best that you can, to know them well enough to know when to push and when to pull back.”
Perhaps what’s most exceptional about her story is that to Kim, teaching Harrison hasn’t been exceptional at all. She approached Harrison’s education the same way she approached the education of every single one of her students: by constantly adapting to the children’s needs, interests, and abilities. “This is just an extension of what I do for all my kids,” Kim says. “We’re all unique, and everyone has some sort of challenge. Sometimes you can see right away what their challenge is and sometimes you may not, but just because it isn’t visible doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”
Though Harrison and Grace will soon graduate to 4th grade, their three years with Kim have left an indelible mark on the whole Gattis family. While recovering from his recent brain surgery, Harrison wrote his Honored nomination story about Kim (using his voice-to-text computer) as a way to do something constructive with his time—a testament in itself to both the initiative and articulacy Kim has instilled in him that will transcend his time in her classroom. “Kim has given him a lot of confidence in himself,” Sarah says. “He knows he’s capable. Now even if others in the future don’t, he will expect that of himself.”
Photos by Ben McKeown
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