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Rissa Spangler: An advocate for all children

Thursday, August 19, 2010  
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06:00 am, 08/19/2010
Gail Baruch

Rissa Spangler knows what it’s like to be discouraged. She knows what it’s like to be labeled a special-education student, having had problems reading in third grade.

"The teachers kind of wrote me off,” she recalls.

When she asked one high school teacher for a letter of recommendation for college, she was told, "You’ll never make it.”

But she didn’t let that stop her. She went on to be president of her senior class at Rockford College, eventually earning a master’s degree. For the past two years, she’s taught at Eisenhower Middle School. Last spring, she won the district’s "Those Who Excel” teacher of the year award, voted on by her peers. She’ll compete for the state title in November.

Spangler, 31, is unpretentious and sincere and could pass for a college student in her T-shirt and jeans. She was born in Chicago, the oldest of three kids. The family moved to Belvidere when she was 14. Her parents stressed the importance of education and always believed in her, she says.

After college, she worked as a caseworker for kids on parole before teaching in Richmond for three years.

She moved to the Rockford School District two years ago, where she tutors kids throughout the district, from first grade through high school, special ed to gifted. Working evenings, weekends and even holidays, she logged about 100 hours last spring alone. Last summer, she taught severe and profoundly handicapped students at Carlson Elementary.

Her day job finds her teaching a special-education class at Eisenhower. Last year, 12 of her 14 kids came from low-income backgrounds.

"They’re not my students, they’re my kids,” she says. "They are amazing. Every student has ability. The teacher needs to find a way to bring it out.”

She starts with the parents, phoning each of them at the beginning of the year, to introduce herself and give them her cell phone number.

"You need to have mutual respect,” she says. "You’ve got to have the parents on your side.”

She and her two paraprofessionals establish an environment where no one is bullied.

"When you’re in my classroom, you’re protected,” she says. Whatever problems may be at home, "We always say we hang it up at the door.”

The past two years have produced some victories. She cites one student with Down syndrome who didn’t talk, but now holds conversations. Another 14-year-old was able to finally plan a play date with a friend. One 13-year-old girl learned to read last year.

Spangler smiles remembering one of her students struggling to read a passage.

"What’s this word?” the student asked her, holding her finger over the word.

"I don’t know,” Spangler said, craning to see around her finger.

"Well, sound it out,” the student advised.

Spangler’s days can be unpredictable. Once she had to crawl under a bathroom stall to free a boy who couldn’t unlock the door. She’s taught herself Braille and has resorted to playing Monopoly to help reach students.

Spangler also interacts with other students at Eisenhower. She plans the school dances, runs the Renaissance program and helps at the homework club after school. She invites the rest of the school into her special education classroom. Last year, her kids hosted a science fair and presented a holiday program, highlighting customs from around the world. Next year, she plans to invite the bilingual classes to take part in that project.

"My kids felt important,” she says. "They felt they had something to offer.”

Her kids help run the school’s recycling program and are in charge of the school store. Spangler tries to teach them life skills. Even if they don’t go on to college, she says, they still can lead productive lives.
"Everyone’s job has meaning,” she says. "You can make a difference, even if you work at McDonald’s.”

Spangler says she’s glad to be working for District 205. Her mother recently followed in her footsteps, teaching autistic students at Thompson Elementary.

"Rockford is a great place to teach,” Spangler says. "There are a lot of unsung heroes — the secretaries and the janitors, the security guards and the librarians, the paraprofessionals that don’t get recognized.

"Every child can learn,” she says. "They just need an advocate. I believe in the kids.”

Spangler credits district leaders, including Amy Croxford, special education administrator, and Eisenhower principal Jill Davis, for their support. Ultimately, however, it’s up to the teachers to make a difference in students’ lives.

"Every child can learn,” she says. "They just need an advocate. I believe in the kids.”

Profile: Rissa Spangler
Born: 1979 in Chicago.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology, minor in human development, master’s degree in teaching, Rockford College.

Family: Husband, Jake; foster son, Jacob, 6; parents, Jeff and Brenda Lisitza; brothers, Josh and Adam; sisters-in-law, Kysa and Kim; one niece; and a nephew expected in August.

First job: Caseworker for students on parole.

Present job: Teacher at Eisenhower Middle School.

Hobbies: Going to the beach with her foster son, Jacob; rooting for the Cubs and the RiverHawks; vegging out on the sofa and watching TV.

This story appeared at on August 19, 2010.

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