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A lesson in life for teacher
Countys teacher of the year learned about living from her first-born
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Jenny Wilkins works with a student in a small-group session to improve reading skills. Wilkins devotes about half her day to small-group interaction with students and the other half to one-on-one instruction with first-graders in the Reading Recovery program. - photo by Photo by Paul Floeckher

Marlow Elementary School’s Jenny Wilkins is a highly-regarded teacher, as evidenced by her selection as the 2013-14 Teacher of the Year for all Effingham County schools.

She gives credit to the many good teachers she had along the way, including her mother, Nancy Carroll, an elementary-school music teacher in the Burke County School System.

However, Wilkins maintains, no one has taught her more than her first child, Catie, did.

Catie battled cancer for all of her brief life. She was just 4 years old when she died in January 2007.

“But she knew how to live,” Wilkins said. “When she felt good, we lived large and lived full, and she taught me more than probably anybody else ever has.”

Catie never knew a life without cancer. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had her first surgery on her first birthday, Wilkins said.

The young girl underwent four separate major craniotomies to remove cancerous tumors. Catie had a total of “12 or 13 surgeries” at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and “was on treatment non-stop,” according to her mother.

“She might’ve only been 4 when she died,” Wilkins said, “but she’s the strongest person I’ve ever known. She was amazing.”

The sorrow Jenny and Tre´ Wilkins felt from losing their first-born was eased by the perspective she gave them. Catie packed as much fun and laughter as she could into her short time, her mom said, leaving a lasting impression on her parents to be grateful for what they have.

“I think that’s one of the secrets to life,” Wilkins said. “She could’ve been miserable for the hand she was dealt, but she wasn’t. We could be grateful for her; or we could resent that God had struck us down with this horrible thing that happened in our family, but that wasn’t how she taught us. She taught us to live well and make the best of it.”

Wilkins acknowledges she has plenty to be grateful for, including daughter Izzy, 6, a first-grader at Marlow Elementary, and son Chip, 4, a pre-kindergartener at MES. Izzy was born a week after Catie died.

Wilkins, one of two Reading Recovery teachers at Marlow Elementary, couldn’t be happier with her career.

Reading Recovery is a first-grade program, targeting the bottom 20 percent of readers. Every student in Reading Recovery receives daily one-on-one instruction for 30 minutes.

“I love what I do,” Wilkins said. “Where I am right now is where I’m supposed to be, I think.”

Recovering through reading
Wilkins hasn’t always been a Reading Recovery teacher. She began her career at Ebenezer Elementary School, where she taught a variety of subjects to third- and fourth-graders.

She Wilkins remembers the exact date everything changed — Sept. 26, 2003, when an MRI was done on Catie’s brain.

“They found the mass, but we didn’t know what it was,” Wilkins said. “They sent us straight to Atlanta by ambulance the next day, and I never came back. We were in the hospital for over a month the first stay.”

Catie was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a highly-malignant brain tumor. Wilkins did not return to Ebenezer Elementary, opting instead to stay with her daughter through every day of her illness.

“I just needed to be with her,” she said.

Wilkins credited the EES staff with supporting her and stepping in to teach her students for the rest of the school year. She and her husband also leaned heavily on family, friends and, most importantly, their faith.

“(Times were) not easy because we had not planned for me not to work,” she said. “But we were very blessed in the generosity of others, and Tre´ had a really great job and God provided and blessed us, so I was able to be home.”

As the 2008-09 school year neared, Wilkins was ready to return to teaching. She was hired at Marlow Elementary, where she has spent the past six of her 11 years as a teacher.

Wilkins committed to teaching Reading Recovery. The Mercer University graduate hit the books again and completed the rigorous year-long training to earn certification as a Reading Recovery teacher.

“It’s the equivalent of three graduate-level courses,” she said. “It is the best instruction I have ever received in my life. It’s amazing instruction and totally changed the way that I teach reading.”

Shifting her career focus to Reading Recovery was a natural fit for Wilkins, an avid reader. As a child, she read books as often as she could — even when she was supposed to be sleeping.

“I remember as a kid, I’d be reading Nancy Drew books with the flashlight under my bed,” she said. “But I’d give myself away because I’d get to a scary part and I’d get up and go to my mom.”

Students beginning Reading Recovery don’t have nearly that enthusiasm for reading, though. For them, it is a daily struggle.

When students start the program, they are reading only simple books. For example, Wilkins said, one page might say, “Mom went to the store,” the next page, “Dad went to the store,” and the next, “Grandpa went to the store.”

“The only thing that’s changing is one word, and they’re looking at the picture,” she said. “And if they graduate from our program, they’re reading great books like ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ or ‘Goodnight Moon.’”

To graduate, students must improve to reading at or above their grade level. Reading Recovery is 20 weeks long, or fewer if students reach the goal sooner.

Each 30-minute lesson is divided into three 10-minute segments, beginning with the student reading books he or she has already read and the teacher recording the child’s progress. The next 10 minutes are devoted to writing.

“Reading and writing are such reciprocal processes, and if you get better in one, it helps you get better in both,” Wilkins said. “Surprisingly enough, a lot of kids can write words that they can’t read, or they can read words that they can’t write.”

In the final 10 minutes of each lesson, the first-grader reads a new book. The child then takes home three books to read.
“You have to read to get better at reading,” Wilkins said.

Sometimes the students amaze Wilkins — and themselves — with how much they’re improved. She said no other experience in teaching has enabled her to see greater student progress than Reading Recovery has.

“It’s so funny to watch them, because they don’t realize how far they’ve come,” she said with a big smile. “They’ll say, ‘This is so easy!’ Or inevitably a kid will look at me about halfway through a lesson series and say, ‘I can’t believe I can read that.’ They start so low and we take them so far, so fast that the progress is just astounding.”

Reading Recovery teachers are additional faculty members to the designated classroom teachers who have groups of students for the entire day. Though Wilkins admits she sometimes misses having the “little family” of her own class of students, she thrives in teaching children one-on-one.

“She zones in on the child in such a special way,” said Marlow Elementary Principal Wallace Blackstock. “She gets to know the student and is able to talk with them about their likes and dislikes and their interests, to make that instruction personal for them.”

However, Reading Recovery makes up only about half of Wilkins’ school day. She also works with students in other grades, in small-group settings to improve their reading skills.

She also is instructing her fellow Marlow teachers on using effective reading strategies with their students in a program called Guided Reading.

“It really is above and beyond what she’s expected to do in the classroom,” Blackstock said.

A lasting legacy
As much as she loves helping her students and colleagues, Wilkins has an even greater passion.

In memory of their first-born child, Jenny and Tre´ Wilkins established Catie’s Fund. In conjunction with the non-profit organization CURE Childhood Cancer, Catie’s Fund raises money for the fight against pediatric cancers.

“The community has been very supportive and helped us raise a lot of money,” Wilkins said.

Effingham County schools are supporting Catie’s Fund with dress-down days, an effort Wilkins said is on pace to generate more than $10,000. The major fundraiser for Catie’s Fund is Sisters on a Journey, an annual dinner and raffle that raised about $30,000 this past spring.

The fund for child cancer research keeps Catie’s legacy alive in the community, but she is never far from her mother’s thoughts. Asked how many children she has, Wilkins still speaks of Catie in present tense.

“We have three,” she said.

As her first-born neared the end of her cancer battle, Wilkins was expecting her second child. Seated on Catie’s hospital bed when she died, Wilkins was nine months pregnant with Izzy.

“I thought God had lost his mind,” Wilkins said. “But he knew what he was doing. He knew that Izzy would give us a reason to get up in the mornings.”

It was a reminder of the lesson Catie taught to live life to the fullest and find the best in any situation. Wilkins refers to her daughter’s illness and death and her own hiatus from teaching as a “detour for a while in our life.”

“I always thought I would look at Izzy and see how long (Catie) had been gone,” she said, “because, literally, Catie died on Friday, we buried her on Monday and Izzy was born on Friday. But it’s not like that, because Izzy is just her own little spirited person.”

As are the many elementary-school students Wilkins has helped in improving their reading abilities. Their successes — and delight in them — remind Wilkins why she became a teacher.

“I believe God does gift us with different things, and I do think that’s one of the things that he has enabled me to be good at,” she said. “I have teachers who I remember from when I was a kid who made a profound impact on my life. You can’t do or be that for every kid, but you have the potential to make a kid’s day better.”

Wilkins described her Teacher of the Year recognition as “an amazing honor.” However, she shrugged off the notion that she is Effingham County’s top teacher.

“I think Teachers of the Year, when they are chosen, are representative of the body they come from,” Wilkins said. “There are hundreds of amazing teachers in Effingham County; there are hundreds of teachers better than me. It just happened to be that I get to represent them this year.”