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‘That’s the Easiest Part, Loving These Students,’ Says Award-Winning DC Special Ed Teacher

By Carolyn Phenicie | May 2, 2016

Washington, D.C.
It’s a Monday morning in the intensive special education classroom at Charles Hart Middle School in Anacostia, and Craig Duchemin’s students are late. Again.
Many of Duchemin’s students, whose disabilities range from profound autism to Down Syndrome to more mild emotional disturbances, arrive on a special bus that has once again gotten stuck in D.C.’s notorious rush-hour traffic.
They finally pull in, have breakfast and begin class at 9:45. School officially started an hour ago. That delay is just one of many challenges Duchemin will face as he works to educate his special needs students, most of whom come from poor neighborhoods surrounding Hart, where 99 percent of the kids qualify for free and reduced- priced lunch.
The first week of May is National Teacher Appreciation Week, and if anyone is worthy of recognition and gratitude, colleagues and district officials say, it’s this pastor-turned-educator.
Duchemin won an award for excellence in teaching in 2014 for getting huge gains in learning with his students. He also serves as head of the special education department at Hart, a district recruiter for always-hard-to-find special educators, and a member of district-wide teams working on alternate testing for special needs students and transitions in the central office.
And — just breathe — he’s in the middle of planning his wedding.
About 30 students will cycle through Duchemin’s intensive reading class throughout the day, and he greets them all with high-fives, handshakes, and, in a few cases, a secret combination of the two. That personalized attention stretches to their behavioral and academic needs and into their lives outside of school — he often attends church or birthday parties or sporting events with his students and their families.
“That’s the easiest part, loving these students and really getting to know them and developing relationships with them. And that’s a really powerful thing. I think that’s the thing that makes teaching really enjoyable, is the relationship component,” Duchemin, 33, told The 74.
Duchemin has “always been a team player,” with both students and the other adults in the building, says Hart Assistant Principal Sharon Piner.
“People always have positive things to say. A lot of times they’ll seek him out if they need assistance before they even come to administration, because they’re just so confident in him, and he’s built really, really good relationships with his families and his students,” she said.
In the midst of Duchemin’s interview, a student assistant, LaJayvious Kimbrough, runs around excitedly setting out folders and making sure laptops and tablet computers are charged before his classmates arrive. He seems both to want to maintain control of his classroom domain and impress the visiting reporter.
Kimbrough jumps into the conversation, offering that he thought his teacher was 25. Duchemin laughs and says he thought his students would say 45.
Duchemin — better known as Mr. D to the students and staff at Hart — grew up in a town of 90 in Indiana, and after three years majoring in teaching at Indiana University, decided he didn’t want to be a teacher.
“I didn’t feel I was prepared, emotionally, just didn’t feel I was ready to step into a classroom,” he said. “That might have been an unwise decision at the time as a 20-year-old, but I didn’t feel mature enough or prepared enough to do it.”
Instead, he graduated with degrees in history and sociology, and became a youth pastor at a church in Illinois. He also worked at a local high school with profoundly disabled children.
“My faith has always been something that’s pretty important to me. I felt I had a lot of the qualities of being a teacher but they just had not been cultivated yet, so I kind of had the conviction of my faith, with the passion to work with youth, but I wasn’t quite sure what that looked like specifically at the time,” he said.
He found it encouraging to see his high school students from that time developing and progressing, and he decided to get back into teaching. Teach for America brought him to the nation’s capital and to Hart Middle School in 2009, where he started working with emotionally disturbed students. He took over the class for autistic students the next year..
His students run the gamut. At the low end, is an autistic student Duchemin says tests at roughly the level of a 9-month-old while at the other, are students with emotional disturbances doing high school-level work. Most students are somewhere in the middle — they can read basic sentences and are working on comprehension.
The students come through in three sections, based on ability rather than age. Within each section, there are either two or three sub-groups that rotate working with Duchemin, an aide, or semi-independently on laptops.
“It’s an IEP coming to life,” he says, referring to the individualized education plan each student with a disability is entitled to under federal law.
Monday morning starts with the students in the middle of the pack. Duchemin walks around and around and around a circle of short tables as students read aloud. He works on particular problem words with each student and gives out high-fives and Peanut M&M’s for correct answers. This group’s vocabulary word is “inventory.” Duchemin explains it using Wal-Mart, Target, and video game retailer GameStop, a natural connection for the teenage boys.
This group includes Kimbrough, the classroom assistant, who spends as much time on his laptop typing as he does singing, alternating between “Let It Go” from “Frozen” and the 2010 dance hit “Like a G6.”
“I feel so fly like a G6, like a G6, like a G6,” he sings over and over.
Duchemin and the other teachers have their students “rotate” through the three classes, like their general education peers do. This helps them learn to transition between activities, he says. Keeping it contained to the generous-sized basement classroom Duchemin shares with the special education math and English teachers, gives the students a similar experience but without the distractions and difficulties of ringing bells, swarming teenagers, and navigating the whole school.
The next group is the most profoundly disabled, including the non-verbal student, whom Duchemin is teaching to communicate on a tablet computer. They’re learning simple words, like black, sky and dog.
The final section has the highest achievers. Duchemin reviews last week’s vocabulary words — guile and recalcitrant — while teaching these two students about irony.  
For the last class of the day, Duchemin again has some of the most-able students. Today they’re working on social studies, learning U.S. geography, state names, and capitals. He has special mnemonic devices for each pair: students raise their arms in praise and sing “Hallelujah!” to remember Hawaii’s capital, Honolulu, and mime throwing a rock in an arc, for Little Rock, Arkansas. (He alternates social studies with science, where the current unit is the structure of a cell.)
Duchemin and his aide keep careful control over behavior, tracking specific areas for each student and awarding points that can be used to “buy” computer access, snacks and other rewards during free time. He has to sweat the small stuff, like making sure students sit up straight during lessons or push in chairs, so they can concentrate on the real lessons, he says.
One behavioral blip occurs during social studies — a student slams a folder in front of another who erupts and begins yelling. Duchemin takes the yeller out into the hallway to calm down, and the folder-slammer apologizes. The student who shouted is able to control himself later in the lesson when another potential hotspot arises.
The time with the students is the best part of the day, Duchemin says. It’s all that other stuff — the committees and meetings and phone calls — that’s tough.
“Managing all those responsibilities can be overwhelming at times, at the same time still remembering why you’re here, and that is for the young men and women that are coming through here — their lives, their dreams, their futures,” he says.
Duchemin says he may someday transition out of the classroom, either to school administration, a college professorship, or maybe even politics. He hasn’t made the jump yet, though, because every time he thinks he’s found the last class of students that he’ll see through middle school, a new one grabs his loyalty.
Kimbrough, the singing assistant, is one of those.
The sixth-grader has severe emotional challenges and started the year yelling profanities, upturning chairs and generally disrupting classroom learning. Giving him some measure of ownership and encouraging him to make decisions has “dramatically altered his experience,” Duchemin says.
“This is what gets you up every morning and gets you motivated. This is what brings you back every year.”
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