Teaching can be a difficult feat. Preparing the youth for their futures is a grand task and takes the most passionate to do it effectively. Even more difficult, arguably, is going down the path of special education; helping those with learning disabilities may be frustrating, as one has to learn to talk on their level of understanding with the utmost care and compassion.
Approximately 6 million children, or approximately 10 percent of all school-aged children, receive some type of special education services, according to an article published by the Department of Education in 2002.
One local instructor at Jersey Shore Area High School has proved to be just that: compassionate, kind and understanding. She is Stephanie Machmer, a life skills support teacher of 17 years at the school.
Stephanie Machmer, Jersey Shore Area High School life skills support teacher, stands at right in black shirt among her students and teacher’s aids on April 30.
All those interviewed that work with her agreed, she consistently does more than expected for her students.
"She always goes above and beyond for each and every student so that they get every opportunity to participate in activities in and out of school," Jacqueline Gundlach, Machmer's instructional aid, said.
"She goes that extra mile," Steve Thomas, also an instructional aid in Machmer's classroom, said, noting that "nothing is sugar coated in her classroom."
"She goes above and beyond," Cindy Deeter, of Williamsport, who regularly speaks to Machmer because her cousin is instructed by Machmer. She noted that Machmer regularly calls her to let her know how William Confer, better known as Billy, is doing. Deeter has wanted Machmer acknowledged for her good work for a long time. Like Deeter, Billy was excited to nominate his teacher.
Machmer has stayed very close to her roots, she is a native of the Jersey Shore area, having grown up in Cogan Station.
"I love the close knit community and all that our area has to offer. My husband and I built a house on my family's farm. Both of our families are in this area and family is extremely important to me," Machmer said, adding, jokingly, that the one thing she could do without is the snow.
She graduated from Jersey Shore Area High School in 1992 and received a teaching degree from Bloomsburg University in 1996.
While many struggle with what they want to do with themselves, Machmer was aware in junior high that her goal was to be a special education teacher.
"I have always enjoyed helping people, especially those who may have difficulty learning. I student taught in life skills with Bonnie Williams from Williamsport Area High School and I learned a tremendous amount from her. After working in her classroom, I knew I wanted to teach life skills," Machmer said.
Education is a passion she shares with her husband, too; he is a social studies teacher at East Lycoming School District. Together they have two young children, a daughter, Samantha, and a son, Jacob, who inspire her.
"I try to share their experiences with my class and I try to share my class [experiences] with them," she said. "I want them to understand that everyone is good at something, and that no one is good at everything."
Her mission, and the mission of the school and the life skills program, is to provide students with the tools they need to live as independently as possible. Students in her classes are expected to learn skills that will enable them to be productive adults in society.
To enable her students to become as independent as possible, is Machmer's main goal, and she teaches concepts to allow that, such as functional math (time, money, check writing, budgeting and bill paying), reading (applications, signs, instructions, etc.), job skills, health, social skills and daily living skills (cooking, cleaning and caring for a living space).
Though she loves her job, she said, like all jobs, there are frustrating moments.
"For me, the bigger picture is frustrating. There are not enough jobs for my students, the funding to agencies they need (like MHID, Mental Health/Intellectual Disability program) have been grossly cut and services are just not available. I try to have as much in place for my students as I can when they are ready to graduate, but sometimes the opportunities in the communities just aren't there," she said.
An important aspect of Machmer's class is the field trips and work opportunities they get. Through her class, these students are able to get experiences that they may not be able to get otherwise.
"She spends countless hours with various agencies to get her students out in the community to get work experience before they enter the real world," Thomas said.
Though the job expects a lot, she enjoys it immensely, and so do her co-workers.
Thomas, who has worked with her for 15 years and is soon retiring, said he and Machmer can now finish each other's sentences. Gundlach, who has worked with her for 10 years, noted that she truly loves her job and the people she works with, and enjoys going to work every day.
Machmer plans to stay where she is until she retires, with no plans to retire in the near future. With graduation at JSAHS quickly approaching on June 8, Machmer looks forward to watching five of her students graduate.
"They have worked so hard to get to that day it is nice to see how proud they and their families are. I enjoy seeing my past graduates in the community and learning that they are working and being successful," she said, adding that it's nice to see the students mature and grow.
Billy, 21, will be among the five students graduating from her class. He has had a long journey to graduation day, having struggled until he transferred to Machmer's class just a few years ago. Prior, he went to a different school and wasn't responding as well. Now, Deeter said, he can read better and has improved in many other areas since learning from Machmer.
"I learned a lot more from her and I'm doing a lot better," he said. He even makes honor roll when learning from her, he said.
Billy is being evaluated by Hope Enterprises Inc., a company dedicated to "enhancing the lives of people with developmental disabilities," and is hoping to be placed to work at a local grocery store like Weis Markets, after graduating from JSAHS.