So often, teachers go beyond the requirements of their job description. Suzette Steward, or Mrs. Suzette as her kids call her, goes even farther every day. Laura Lanstill, Mrs. Suzette’s aide, says, “It’s not just a career for her. It’s her life.” In May 2013, Mrs. Suzette, a special needs teacher at Cinco Ranch Junior High School in the Kids with Autism program, earned the America’s Top Teacher Award from “Live with Kelly and Michael.”
Mrs. Suzette teaches her students basic life skills such as folding laundry, counting money at the grocery store, expanding food preferences, and obeying instructions to make them contributors in their homes and in society. She says, “I like to see the little successes. . . . Small things are huge milestones. Even getting our kids to eat things other than crackers or simply sweet and salty food can be a challenge. If I can get them to eat other things, that is a milestone in the long run.” For Mrs. Suzette, little victories mean everything.
Not only does Mrs. Suzette teach her students during school hours, she also runs independent camps after school and during weekends, school holiday breaks (such as Christmas and spring break), and summer for special needs kids. In her camps every day, Mrs. Suzette takes her kids out into the community where they can experience activities just like other kids. For example, they have visited Sea World in San Antonio, the beach, the Houston Rodeo, and the Bluebell Ice Cream factory. The camps are designed to keep the kids active, allowing them to have fun and get needed physical exertion simultaneously. They have gone swimming, go-carting, tubing on the lake, and riding on roller coasters. “We have a few roller coaster junkies,” Mrs. Suzette states with a laugh. Lisa Clements, Mrs. Suzette’s primary award nominator, adds, “For the older children they are given the opportunity to go on overnight campouts, boating, trips to Six Flags, and participate in zip lines, horseback riding, you name it.” Mrs. Suzette explains, “We give our kids the opportunity to interact, to play. Some of the kids express things differently than others, but I try to give them the same experience that other kids would get.” All of these diverse activities allow the kids to learn how to act in public, how to communicate and interact with each other and people in the community. And they just have fun!
Mrs. Suzette also offers her services individually. Clements says, “She will bring our kids into her home and entertain them while the parents take a much needed vacation of their own.” Understanding the stress and burden parents can feel, Mrs. Suzette gives parents time to rest, go on vacation, or simply go on a date without worrying about their child: “I take care of all kinds of kids with different problems. . . . I enjoy feeling like I help in a way that others feel that they can’t. I can fill that void for families.”
Upon request, Mrs. Suzette provides personal visits to her students’ homes to offer advice and instruction to parents on creating a learning environment for their child’s growth. Clements says, “She is great at ‘problem solving’ and coming to your home to help you figure out better ways of handling situations if need be.” Mrs. Suzette teaches parents how to use motivation strategies at home to strengthen their child’s life skills. “I know it’s stressful, but these kids aren’t going to be children forever. They will become adults one day, so they need to function,” she says. Although it may be easier for these parents to do everything for their special needs children or give them what they want immediately, Mrs. Suzette encourages parents to continue challenging their children to improve their skills in small ways every day.
According to Mrs. Suzette, the community can benefit just as much from her camp outings as the kids. In the nomination video, Elizabeth Kuylen, principal at Cinco Ranch Junior High states, “Hopefully, we are teaching our community at large to be more tolerant. . . . We want to spread the idea that this is good for everybody.” Mrs. Suzette hopes additional exposure to her kids will help people overcome misconceptions and fear that they may have about special needs children and adults. She says, “They are different and communicate differently, but they are just like everyone else in a lot of ways.” Many of her kids love Disney, playing with new technology, drawing, and playing games—just like every other kid out there. Although people with special needs have varying degrees of ability and understanding, Mrs. Suzette says members of the community should be patient, kind, and open to accommodating special needs: “We can accommodate their learning in their preferred way. . . . If a child loves to sing [or draw] . . . make accommodations and don’t judge.” In a way, she says, “They are here to teach us.”
As part of the award from “Live with Kelly and Michael,” Mrs. Suzette received a new 2014 Ford Escape, useful to continue her work in transporting kids for her camps. Her school also received $25,000 and five E-Instruction technology packages, which will come in handy with her technologically savvy kids. Mrs. Suzette and her husband also enjoyed a trip to Tahiti, to which she said before leaving, “I am excited, but I will miss my kids.”
Clements finished her nomination letter by saying, “She has more energy, passion, and love for kids than you will find in any other human being. The kids love her, connect with her and respond to her like no other. . . . The kids respect and listen to her as do her peers and parents.” Her love and devotion to her students, the time she dedicates to them, and the lesson of patience she brings to the community truly merits the title of a top teacher.
To see Suzette's video and her interaction with her kids, go here and click on her link.