Thomas Neely is a teacher at Strathcona elementary. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)

Thomas Neely is a teacher at Strathcona elementary. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)

Heroes in Education: Helping students with exceptionalities

Something special about Strathcona elementary teacher Thomas Neely

The Chilliwack Progress is honoured to profile seven ‘Heroes in Education’ from a long and amazing list of nominees sent to us from the Chilliwack community.

“There’s something special about Strathcona,” says teacher Thomas Neely.

It’s his second year there, first as a Grade 4 teacher and now leading a Grade 5 class. And it just so happens his students think there is something special about him, too. He’s been nominated for a Heroes in Education award, for his support and encouraging teaching style.

Kristy van den Bosch nominated him for the care he’s taken with her son, Willem.

As any visitor to his classroom will know, Neely has created a safe zone for Willem to work in.

“This past year has brought out lots of anxiety for Willem due to COVID-19,” van den Bosch said. “He was very nervous to attend school and Mr. Neely built him his own separate area right by his desk (complete with Halloween ‘Caution’ tape) so he could avoid being close to the other students. This really reassured Willem.”

For now, Willem is back to learning at home, but Neely still supports his student and the family in his learning process.

The pandemic has been hard on students, and especially so for students with exceptionalities, Neely said.

“It’s just a lot of change and fears and stuff around it, and it’s a lot to take in,” he says. “The anxieties are universal to all the students, and even though the neurotypical students definitely mask it, there are times when those feelings do come out, and everything adds up.”

There are students who had long stretches of time away from school, and even away from usual social settings with peers. And that isolation, coupled with anxiety from the pandemic, can lead to issues in the classroom that teachers need to deal with.

“I think a lot of teachers are cognizant of how the children are feeling, and there’s been a lot of emphasis on socializing,” he says, especially for those who didn’t come back right away. These are young children, who are still learning how to get along with others.

“Some forgot some social cues, so we are teaching them how to socialize and how to be friends, how to be emotionally intelligent,” he says. “I think our job is more than academics. We’re teachers, we’re counsellors, we’re social workers and all kinds of things.”

And they also try to support students through changing environments. In typical years, students would be paired up with a different teacher from grade to grade.

However, for students with vulnerabilities, Strathcona elementary has kept many with their previous teacher where possible. It was one way to help ease the struggles kids are facing with the pandemic.

“These are students we had formed connections with, and we realized they would be more successful continuing with us instead of starting from ground zero,” Neely said. “And that’s been really awesome to see the growth and watch the milestones.”

For example, with Willem he has been able to watch him grow in his reading abilities.

“I also want to give a shout out to my colleague Lindsay Hurley,” he says, who teaches another Grade 5 class at Strathcona. “She sacrifices lunches and recesses to work with her students, because she is the only one they can respond to.”

Go to theprogress.com/community to read about Chilliwack’s other Heroes in Education. All seven features will be published May 1 and 2.

Chilliwack School DistrictEducation