“My role is to love on kids and to teach them. And sometimes it’s to teach them that they can get through it.”
Months before the words “distance learning” found their way into the lives of all Americans, first-grade teacher Mrs. Sandy Lemmink was busy reimagining the landscape of elementary education. It was September 2019 and she had just been presented with a challenge that millions of her fellow educators would soon also face: how do you bring school to a student who cannot be there in person?
Lemmink’s student Noah Mattingly had been diagnosed with Wilms Tumor, a rare type of childhood cancer, the spring before his kindergarten year. For the first half of kindergarten, Noah was in and out of the hospital, undergoing surgery and receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments. When the cancer was declared in remission in January 2019, he finally joined his peers in the kindergarten classroom, a joyful and long-awaited victory. For a child his father, Michael, describes as “curious” and “very active,” remission was a chance to return to life as a kid. Noah was finally able to play outside again, be with other kids, and most thrillingly, attend school.
Soon after he began the year in first grade in Lemmink’s class, however, Noah went in for a routine check-up with his oncologist and the Mattingly family learned that the cancer that had once attacked Noah’s kidneys had returned after only nine months of remission, this time lodging itself in his lungs. With the news of relapse, it was likely Noah would also lose out on his first-grade year in the classroom. Fresh waves of fear and disappointment rippled through the entire family: Noah’s older sister Bella, younger sister Annabelle, and parents, Michael and Megin.
“I was worried about him socially, academically, all of it,” Michael remembers thinking. “He just so desperately craves to be part of something.”
That essential ingredient Michael alludes to is the thing that many have recently come to appreciate as the inherent gift of school: a sense of belonging. For a bright and precocious child like Noah, the academic component of school was only one feature. Without the opportunity to learn in a physical classroom, Noah would also be missing out on the human connection: a chance to be a kid among other kids, an opportunity to form relationships with peers and caring adults.
Lemmink, who had only been Noah’s teacher for two weeks at the time of his nine-month scan, remembers being called into the office that fall afternoon. “I saw his parents there and I just lost it,” she recalls. “Because I just knew.”
For any teacher, the serious illness of a student is tragic and unexpected news. But in Lemmink’s case, she had an established relationship with the Mattingly family. Two years earlier Lemmink taught Noah’s big sister Bella. As the mother of three children herself, the news of Noah’s relapse landed in Lemmink’s heart with a powerful and nudging sense of responsibility. Given the long course of prescribed treatment ahead, she began racking her brain for ways to bring school to Noah instead.
“You can always find a way to be connected to your kids.”
It was a pivotal moment for a teacher whose own journey had been marked by unexpected turns. Although Lemmink had known since she was a first-grader herself that she wanted to be an educator one day, her path to the classroom had been anything but direct. When she became a mother at age sixteen, Lemmink’s dream of teaching was immediately deferred, replaced by new and consuming responsibilities. While pregnant with her daughter, she dropped out of high school. As Lemmink adjusted to life as a young mother and wife, a different future began to take shape. She entered the world of marketing and sales, while simultaneously working toward her GED, then an associate’s degree, and eventually, a bachelor’s in education. Although she was making a good living for herself, one that might better financially support her than teaching, Lemmink never lost sight of her long-held ambition. As an adult, she still remembers the teachers who cared for her during her early years, like Mrs. Crowley, a sixth-grade teacher who offered compassion and outreach during a particularly tough time in Lemmink’s young life.
The idea of making an impression in the life of a child, to be able to offer the kind of care and genuine support she once received herself, motivated Lemmink to keep working toward her dream.
When Lemmink first entered the field of education in 2014, she shared her guiding philosophy with Mr. Kevin Thacker, her principal at Clough Pike Elementary in Cincinnati, Ohio: give each child what they need. Five years later, it was a belief she’d come to embed in all facets of her practice, from the cooperative work stations in her classroom (designed to meet the needs of small learning groups), to her friendly smile, to the welcoming words offered to each of her incoming students in letters sent home over the summer.
“She does a fabulous job of creating a classroom family,” conveys Mr. Thacker, as he reflects on Lemmink’s impact as an educator.
To accomplish her goal of providing Noah with exactly what he needed this past school year, however, required Lemmink to think outside the box of traditional instructional practices and certainly beyond the scope of her own job description.
Although there were no expectations for how Lemmink might continue to play a role in Noah’s education once his new course of treatment began, she began to think deeply about school as a place of belonging and how to provide that critical sense of connection to a student, even if he couldn’t be physically present with his peers. Two ideas emerged.
The first was for Lemmink to serve as Noah’s home instructor, someone who would go to his home (or hospital room) several times a week to offer one-on-one tutoring. This position, utilized in medical situations such as Noah’s, might typically be filled by another available educator in the district, one without an existing relationship with the student. But for Lemmink the decision to offer her own time was a no-brainer.
She was distraught by the idea that Noah might not return to the classroom. “My first thought was, ‘Well, wait a minute. He’s in my class. This can’t happen.’ And, so, I went into my principal’s office and said, ‘What can I do?’”
Lemmink’s request to serve as a home instructor for her own student meant working through a process of ethical considerations and bureaucratic red tape, but within weeks, her application was approved. Meanwhile, Lemmink had another big idea up her sleeve.
Although it hadn’t yet been successfully implemented in a classroom in her district, Lemmink was committed to the idea of installing a web camera that would allow Noah to partake in daily live instruction. It was a simple idea, but its execution was complex. Lemmink would need the support of her principal, IT staff, and classroom families to make it happen. At that moment, she could hardly have imagined that by the end of the school year, the implementation of web cameras would become a point of discussion in nearly every school across America.
With perseverance from Lemmink, the web camera was installed a few weeks later and Noah regained a critical piece of his education, one that had been missing during his previous absence from school: direct access to his peers and teacher.
Now, with Lemmink front and center in the classroom providing live virtual instruction each day, the camera allowed Noah to tune in from wherever he was, raise his hand, ask and offer questions, and respond to his peers.
Initially, it was an adjustment for Lemmink’s young students. She recalls that, in the beginning, the webcam was a source of constant distraction.
“At first, they all wanted to jump in front of the camera. They’d be yelling out, “Noah’s hand is up! Noah wants to say something!”
But with some thoughtful coaching from Lemmink, they quickly became acclimated to its presence. Their enthusiasm for seeing their distant peer, however, never wavered.
“They learned where to stand in order for Noah to see them, and they’d walk up to the camera and say things like, ‘Hey Noah, what did you mean in that lesson?’ And they’d have just a normal conversation.”
“At first, they all wanted to jump in front of the camera. They’d be yelling out, 'Noah’s hand is up! Noah wants to say something!'"
Having never taught in this virtual format herself, Lemmink also had a learning curve to tackle. The ways she previously delivered instruction would have to be adapted to maximize engagement with her virtual student. Within time, however, the process became relatively seamless. “Most days it was like Noah was sitting on the carpet with us,” Lemmink shares.
The creation of live virtual instruction coupled with home instruction now meant that Noah was able to receive nearly every component of his academic curriculum. Twice weekly, Lemmink began to meet Noah after school at his grandmother’s house. On the occasions Noah was hospitalized, she offered to travel the thirty minutes downtown to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to work with Noah in his hospital room.
Depending on Noah’s energy levels, their sessions lasted between an hour and two, with a rigorous full hour devoted to tutoring. Mondays were for language arts. Lemmink brought the books and materials from the small-group work Noah would typically have received in class and, on a high energy day, they might read together at his grandmother’s dining room table. Outside the sunlit windows of the dining room, birds flocked to feeders, offering cheerful support as the two worked on literacy, phonics, and reading comprehension.
Fridays were for math. Any differentiated instruction Noah couldn’t participate in virtually was offered once more, this time in the form of a one-to-one lesson, complete with the math games, manipulatives, and tools utilized by his classmates.
“Noah’s a truly gifted mathematician,” Lemmink beams while speaking of their work together. “Despite being in the classroom only a few short weeks, he’s made amazing progress. He just sees things and the way he can explain them, it’s wonderful.”
She continues, “He is so introspective. He thinks so deeply. Whenever I ask him a question, he can dig deeper. He can give me more.”
The admiration is mutual.
Michael Mattingly, who nominated Lemmink for the Honored National Teaching Award, spoke to the power of Lemmink’s presence in Noah’s life in his nominating words. “Noah looks forward to seeing Mrs. Lemmink when she comes for home instruction. On days when she doesn’t come, he still asks if he gets to see her. On days when his numbers are too low for visitors, you can see the disappointment on his face.”
Despite the obstacles, Lemmink’s creative response ensured her student’s remarkable progress, with Noah exceeding every high expectation set for him. And then came spring.
"Little did we know back in September that Noah would be the one telling everyone else, 'You can do it. If I can do it from a hospital, you can do it from your couch.'"
On March 13, 2020, Lemmink and her colleagues were informed that they would make an immediate shift to virtual learning due to the outbreak of COVID-19. It was a transition that would dizzy even the most veteran teachers, but Lemmink was already a pioneer in this brave new virtual world.
“I’ve got to say, my team just rocked it,” she says with pride as she recalls their immediate response to distance learning, one she says reached far and beyond the offerings of some neighboring schools.
Although many in the community expressed doubt and skepticism about the effectiveness of virtual learning, Lemmink believed wholeheartedly in the potential of her students to rise to the occasion.
She laughs, “Little did we know back in September that Noah would be the one telling everyone else, ‘You can do it. If I can do it from a hospital, you can do it from your couch.’”
Throughout the spring, Noah remained as engaged as ever in his virtual learning. So did the majority of his classmates, all of whom had been uniquely prepped for this moment by Mrs. Lemmink’s visionary teaching. It was a stressful season, however, for the Mattingly family as they helped Noah continue to fight for his health, this time during a global pandemic.
These days Noah is grateful to be back at home, following a long hospitalization and course of “super chemo.” He is currently in remission once more and awaiting what is likely to be another stretch of virtual instruction in the fall. In Noah’s eyes, this past school year was memorable not because of the generous and innovative ways Mrs. Lemmink sought to bring the classroom to him, but for the simple way she made him feel.
“I liked being in Mrs. Lemmink’s class because she makes it fun to learn,” he states, matter of factly, in only the way a six-year-old can.
Like Lemmink, teachers across the United States are in the midst of an unprecedented transformation of the educational system. As she considers the uncertainties and tough questions being pondered by her colleagues, Lemmink offers this hard-won advice:
“Don’t forget why you’re doing this. And don’t lower your expectations for these children. Stay focused on why you became an educator, and just like we do every day: when you see a problem, find a way around it. There is always something to be done. You can always find a way to be connected to your kids.”
These words offer inspiration and guidance to all those returning to some version of a classroom in the fall. As for Noah, Lemmink has left her recent graduate with perhaps the greatest lesson any teacher can offer a student, “My role is to love on kids and to teach them. And sometimes it’s to teach them that they can get through it.”
Photos courtesy of Sandy Lemmink and the Mattingly Family
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