Small Steps and Big Goals: Inspired by my Students for my Rehabilitation Journey

by Regina Peery, South Central Teacher of the Year

When I was a little girl, I always played school and dreamed of being a teacher. For the past 20 years, I have lived my dream. Every day I have walked into a building full of children, and have been able to teach – what a gift that has been. It has never felt like a job to me. It has always been my passion.

ReginaPeery3This past July, I was involved in a severe cycling accident and I sustained a concussion and fractured my pelvis and sacrum. I spent a week at the Vanderbilt Trauma Unit followed by three weeks in an inpatient rehab facility, where I spent three hours a day in physical and occupational therapy. I knew that I had to work hard to get back to life and return to one of my greatest passions – teaching.

It was during one of my occupational therapy sessions that I received a lesson I would not soon forget. I had spent many days working on puzzles and mazes to try regain cognitive functioning after the concussion, and I was tired. On this particular day, I was given an EXPO marker. It was the first thing that I had held in weeks that reminded me of being a teacher. I was ready with new enthusiasm and couldn’t wait for my task. My therapist displayed a huge word search puzzle on an easel in front of me with 50 words written at the bottom. She said, “Today, we are going to try to find all of the words in the word search puzzle. They are listed at the bottom and we have the hour to find them.”  I was so excited! I knew that I could do this. With my EXPO marker in my hand and a smile on my face, I began to look for words. I began to stare at the letters as they all seemed to run together.

Thoughts began to fill my head: Where were the words?  I couldn’t find any words.  How could I teach if I couldn’t even solve a word search puzzle? My smile faded and tears filled my eyes.

ReginaPeery4Then, my therapist Lynn stood beside me – not in front of or behind me – but beside me. I heard her patient words: “Let’s go to the second row.  Find the letter r.” Then she pointed to a word that started with r in the word box. “Do you see this word? Great! Circle that word.”  With her guidance, I finally found 10 words by the end of my hour.

As I went back to my room, the tears flowed down my face. She said, “Regina, you did great today! You are going to get there.” But in that moment, I had my doubts. I was also crying thinking about different students that I’ve taught in my career who may not have been ready for a particular assessment or task. Did I help them feel success in some way every time, or did I sometimes send them back to their seat saying, “It’s ok. We will work on this tomorrow”?

I know how I would have felt if my therapist had said that to me on this day. Instead, she adjusted her plan for me, she stood beside me, and she let me feel some success. She gave me hope for a better tomorrow. I’ve always believed in these principles in teaching, but now I had been given the opportunity to feel them with my heart.

Four months after the accident, I was able to step back into my classroom and teach – taking nothing for granted and realizing what a gift it is to live out my dream of being a teacher.

Regina Peery1 (640x427)OKMy first steps into my classroom were different than the steps that I usually take at the beginning of the year. These steps were guided by a cane and a brain that was still healing. I was excited to meet my students but a little nervous about the journey before me. I knew that the students needed my best, so every day I tried to leave the pain and struggles at the door. My students needed me, and I needed them.

By December, the cane had been placed in a closet, and all but two of my students had mastered letter and sound recognition of all letters. I teach kindergarten at a high poverty school, but I prefer to refer to my students as at-promise – not at-risk. One of my students, “Hope,” has a learning disability. One of the things that she struggles with is her memory. One day she said, “Ms. Peery, I know the letters.  I just can’t remember them.”

More than ever before, I truly understood what she was going through. I told her that it was okay and that sometimes I have a difficult time remembering things too. I drew on one of the strategies I used in rehab to help Hope, which was calling all of my nurses and techs by their name. Hope is fascinated by her friends in the classroom. Therefore, we began to associate the letters and sounds with people in our classroom and school. T is for TeZaylan, M is for Mr. McNeece, P is for Ms. Peery… We worked on this and celebrated success, no matter how small, each day. By the time we left for winter break, Hope knew all of her letters and sounds.

Regina Peery2 (640x427)I am still healing, but every day I am getting stronger. I am going to get there and so are my students. Although this accident has been extremely challenging, it has given me a new level of understanding and empathy for my students as I support them through their struggles. I am blessed to still be able to say “I AM A TEACHER,” because I believe with my whole heart that who we are makes a difference.  As teachers, we are able to teach beside our students, provide ways for them to feel success every day, and give students hope for better tomorrows – what an amazing gift and profession.