A glimpse inside the classroom of a truly special educator
The dismissal bell announces the end of another day at Montgomery Middle School, and the silent hallways are immediately transformed into raucous highways of frenetic energy as students race for the exits.
Navigating the roaring torrent of humanity towards Emalyn Leppard’s Room 102 proves a daunting challenge, but once inside, the vibe changes from tumultuous to tranquil. Orderly rows of desks stretch across a teaching space adorned with a kaleidoscopic range of charts, posters and photographs. In the back of the room, a comfy couch beckons. Leppard laughs as she settles in amidst the cushions, “Whoa!” she exclaims. “I rarely, if ever, get a chance to take in the view from this perspective.”
That admission comes as no surprise, as Leppard has made it her practice to lead from the front. Whether as a thirtysomething undergraduate at Alcalá Park or an award-winning educator, her work ethic and unbridled passion for learning have earned rave reviews from her teaching peers, community dignitaries and, most importantly, her students.
Leppard radiates a sense of serenity and temperance that fortify her for the daily, and, on occasion, hourly challenges of teaching math and science to sixth- through eighth-graders with mild-to-moderate disabilities.
“I’m probably the most patient person you’ve ever met,” she says, matter-of-fact. “I thank my mom for that, as she seemed to have an inexhaustible reserve of it too. I really feel blessed to have inherited some of that … ” She pauses, then continues. “You need it for this job sometimes.”
Her ever-present smile and placid persona belie a fierce commitment to her students’ success, both in the classroom and in life. The day-to-day challenges that children with learning disabilities face are myriad, but Leppard is a staunch advocate of the policy that they learn in their own unique way, and at their own unique pace. “You can’t force square pegs into round holes. In education — and especially special education — you need to be positive and patient.”
No doubt that personalized approach to the academic development of each and every one of her students led to Leppard being named San Diego Unified School District’s Middle School Teacher of the Year for 2010-2011.
“I was floored,” she says. “It’s such a huge honor. San Diego Unified is a very large district, so to get that recognition from your peers and from the panel, which were previous teachers of the year themselves, is such high praise.”
The daughter of a nurse and a special education teacher, Leppard was well versed in the value of helping others. She was also inspired by the special connection that exists between teachers and learners, and that inspiration led her to USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences. Her efforts in the classroom would earn her a bachelor’s degree in diversified liberal arts in 1998, but her efforts in serving the community would prove the key component in helping Leppard determine her future career path.
“I was taking a sociology class at USD that required a community service component,” she remembers. “I had to choose between working at a juvenile detention center or with a local at-risk youth program that was just getting started.”
That program, known as Linda Vista Leaders, was founded to provide troubled teens an opportunity to get involved in their community through service-oriented projects. It would also provide Leppard the opportunity to meld her love of education and service into a job that has been central to her growth, both as a professional and a person.
“Getting involved with the Linda Vista Leaders program was the best thing I ever did, and it’s the catalyst for everything I’ve done since,” she says.
And what she’s done since is establish herself as an innovative educator who connects her students to the wonders of learning by utilizing their own creativity. One year it may be assigning a class a photography project that allows them to learn about their respective family lineages. The next, creating a community garden that beautifies the campus, engages the surrounding community and emboldens students to apply the math skills they’ve learned in real-word situations.
When asked how her experiences as a special education teacher have changed her, Leppard gazes out the window, seemingly lost in thought. The effervescent smile returns, her eyes light up, and she clasps her hands together in a gesture that’s equal parts happy and hopeful.
“Has it changed my life? Oh my gosh! I look at life, I look at human nature totally differently than I did before, and I take such great pride in my students’ successes.”