NANAIMO — A Nanaimo teacher is being honoured for her work making her Brechin Elementary classroom a safe space for a Grade 5 student with autism.
Twila Konynenbelt received a National Inclusive Award on Friday, one of six teachers from B.C. honoured.
She was nominated by the mother of Cassie Gamlin after encouraging Cassie to present to the class about art.
Katerina Gamlin noticeably held back tears many times as she told NanaimoNewsNOW about how meaningful it was to see her daughter engaged by a teacher.
“I tear up all the time because we've been through so much and my child is not an easy child to teach,” Gamlin said.
The presentation was only the latest effort to help Cassie feel accepted in the classroom.
“I started getting texts and pictures of my daughter at the beginning of the year,” Gamlin said. “My go-to emotion was 'What has she done wrong? What's the problem?' But it wasn't that at all. It was completely the opposite. That's profound to me. It was so wonderful to see someone was so encouraging and wanted to share good news.”
After nearly a full year of being engaged by her teacher, Cassie is now progressing through school at the same pace as other students. Gamlin said it had previously been a huge struggle and she's staggered to see such progress.
“We're not getting the big reactions and the big triggers. She's actually able to learn and so are the other kids because she's coping very well with the support she has. My daughter knows these people truly care about her. They do understand what Cassie is struggling with and what her assets and biggest gifts are. That's the meaning of full inclusion.”
Konynenbelt said it's easy to be so enthused about helping Cassie when she's so inspired by the young student.
“I'm always in awe of the fact she has all these challenges but yet she's able to bring joy to me and the other kids. She progresses every day, despite the fact her perception of the world is so much different than ours.”
Creating an inclusive classroom has been an ongoing passion for Konynenbelt over her more than 30 years as a teacher.
“Being inclusive to me doesn't mean highlighting or spending more time with one student than another. It's really important that we can stop as a class, say what's working well and what we need to work on and then we come together as a community.”
To make sure all teachers can help their students as much as possible, Konynenbelt advocated for smaller classrooms and more educational assistants.
Her award comes in light of a recent Inclusion BC report which showed students are still being held down and confined to locked rooms in B.C. schools.
In 2017, a Nanaimo teacher was disciplined for locking an autistic boy in a storage room. The boy was found "curled up in a ball, crying" following the ordeal.
Cassie's EA Tanya Remming and Brechin's special support teacher Clay Aitken were also praised by Gamlin for helping Cassie thrive.
On Twitter: @spencer_sterrit
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