John Swett Elementary School – 2006 Winner

Tom Lessig of John Swett Elementary School in Martinez teaches a special counseling-enhanced day class of severely emotionally disturbed elementary school children.  Tom has an unusual background for a teacher.  After graduating from college, he joined the U.S. Marines, and after discharge from military service, he was an L.A. County Deputy Sheriff.

The students in Tom’s class are drawn from all over the district.  Each of them has failed to succeed in at least three or four other types of academic settings before ending up in Tom’s classroom.   His philosophy is that while some students may be more challenging than others, all students deserve an opportunity to learn.

Tom’s approach is to individualize his instruction.  For example, he noticed that while many of his students hated to write, they all shared an interest in Japanese “Yu-gi-oh” cartoons.  He went home and watched the cartoons for several hours.  He found them baffling.  But the next day, he had his students writing Yu-gi-oh sentences, Yu-gi-oh paragraphs and Yu-gi-oh stories.

Many of his students come from families in which the parents either are not interested in education or are so beaten down by economic hardship, illness or drugs that they are unable to fully support their children’s education.  When Tom held an open house early on, zero parents came.  His response was characteristic of him – he went and visited each family at home.  Now he does that routinely.  He works with the parents to understand how to better help their students overcome their severe emotional difficulties.  He is a father-figure to his students, many of whom come from single-parent homes.  He attends cub scout meetings, karate demonstrations, Little League and soccer games.

Tom has generously shared his time and talents with his co-workers.  When the school lost its Resource Specialist, Tom took over that role in addition to his regular duties.  On top of that, he teaches 4th grade science in a neighboring class, and helps other teachers better manage and help their more difficult students.  He invites those difficult students from other classes to attend the special classes he gives to his own students on social skills.  His former principal describes Tom as someone who consistently steps forward and says “I can help with that.”  And she concludes:  “In his gentle, positive manner, he has taught many of the adults at the school to see his students as children with disabilities rather than bad or disobedient kids.”