Working on their log house one day, Monroe High School teacher Susan Dow and her husband had some gravel delivered. The delivery man was a former student, from 30 years ago.
“That’s what you want to see,” she said. “Some are working, making a living, having families. They’ve got to find their niche. There’s something they can do.”
Dow, 65, will spend her last day with students Friday after more than four decades teaching special education.
“The children are the gift. They teach me all the time,” said Dow, who in 42 years with the Monroe district was on three campuses. Her career coincided with those of multiple superintendents and principals.
She’s one of nine special education teachers at the high school, and the longest-serving.
This year, Dow had 22 students in the school’s Structured Learning Center program, some very low academically and needing life skills support, some medically fragile.
There were 10 students in her Positive Behavior Support program. “They’re behaviorally challenged, but very smart,” she said. She also teaches a 10th-grade literature class, with strategic intervention. “They love stories that have unpredictable endings,” she said.
“I would love to see a really good reading program. If they can read, they can do a lot,” Dow said.
“The kids are great. They’re genuine, even some who come in with attitude and behavior problems,” she said.
Each special education teacher has a caseload, and this year eight of her students graduated. The district’s Community-Based Program also offers intensive help for students ages 18 to 21.
Statewide, special education serves about 130,000 eligible students, according to Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Myriad programs fulfill requirements of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Dow grew up in Seattle, and with an art scholarship attended Seattle Pacific University. There, she completed three majors: art, English and special education. For her master’s degree, from City University, she developed a curriculum.
In four decades — she’s been in the district 42 years, but because of time off the state counted 40.63 years at retirement — Dow has seen much change in special education.
She started with just 12 students. Without many of today’s requirements, she took students on field trips and worked with them on art projects. They fished at Flowing Lake, went swimming and roller skating, and to a Seattle SuperSonics basketball game.
Dow taught them pottery and candle-making. Some activities were paid for with money from crafts the kids made and sold at summer markets.
“Now it’s different. As it got bigger, we couldn’t do some things with the short amount of time I had to work with them,” she said. Laws changed, and more paperwork was required.
“Teaching is the fun part,” Dow said.
The most difficult part, she said, is a lack of time. For years, her alarm clock has gone off at 4:10 a.m. “I do a lot at home, too,” she said.
She credits her husband Bill, a retired teacher who worked in alternative school programs, with understanding the demands of her career. “I am extremely fortunate to have a husband who knows firsthand how much outside-of-school time is needed to do this job,” she said. He has seen her through the joys, frustrations and sorrows of being a special education teacher.
Today, an IEP (Individualized Education Program) involves parents, teachers and other experts to interpret evaluation results. “It takes those who know the ropes,” Dow said. “I give best wishes to whomever replaces me. They need patience.”
Through the years, she has seen real strides in how special education students are treated. “People are more accepting, and everybody is included,” she said. Special education students are on sports teams and part of homecoming courts.
Because students often stay in Dow’s classroom for years, she gets to know them well. She had one student for six years. “When he graduated, it was like my own son,” said Dow, who has a grown son and daughter and five grandchildren.
She’s seen former students succeed in all kinds of ways.
One, who played varsity basketball at Monroe High, majored in special education at college, did her student teaching in Dow’s classroom, and is now a teacher.
“There’s one who’s a cook on a cruise liner,” she said. Another, who acted in high school plays, plans to move to Los Angeles and pursue acting.
“I’ve had a pro BMX biker, a rodeo roper and a dental assistant,” Dow said. “They’re out there in all walks of life. They’re doing well.”