The SPECIAL NEEDS TEACHER
BY PATTIE DURHAM
Coming from a family of educators — her mother and her aunts were all teachers — Pamela Brown Williams says she grew up with the realization that she enjoyed most helping those students who struggle with academics or confidence. Visiting the classrooms of her aunts, she says she saw how they were able to make learning fun for their students and she wanted to help students learn in that way, too.
Born and raised in Fort Pierce as the eldest daughter of local dentist Dr. Winfield Brown and his wife, Venetia, she says it was when she was attending Dan McCarty High School that she learned she could volunteer in the buildings that housed the county’s special education classrooms, located in the field behind the yellow brick school on Delaware Avenue. Those experiences and that passion to help others led her to apply to the University of Georgia after graduation from Indian River Junior College. “It was known to have the best program for special education in the South,” she says.
Her decision was serendipitous; she met her husband, George, on a blind date at Georgia. The two married after he completed his first year at the University of Georgia Law School. Williams, who earned a bachelor’s in secondary education, had her first experience with teaching what was known then as special education at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, Georgia. “It was a wonderful experience,” she says, adding that she remembers being told by some faculty at the school that “she wasn’t allowed [in certain areas of the school]” after they had mistaken her for a student.
After her husband graduated from law school, the couple came to Fort Pierce and he interviewed and was hired for a position with Charles R.P. Brown’s law practice.
“My mother always said, ‘It’s important that we get sand in George’s shoes so that y’all will move back to Florida,’” Williams says.
The couple settled in and raised two daughters, Paige and Payton, in Fort Pierce. Paige lives in Georgia and is director of marketing readiness for Cox Automotive, while Payton lives in Alabama and is following somewhat more in her mother’s footsteps, working as the Inpatient Occupational Therapy Coordinator at Children’s Hospital of Alabama. It seems Williams didn’t quite follow her mother’s advice, as neither of her children has returned to live in Fort Pierce.
As soon as Williams and her husband moved back to Fort Pierce, she began her 45 years of teaching special needs students in the St. Lucie County School District, beginning at elementary schools, followed by two years at Fort Pierce Central High School and eight years at Port St. Lucie High School before moving to Fort Pierce Westwood High School, where she spent the majority of her teaching years.
“It has always been a goal of mine to teach students with disabilities so that they can be successfully employed in the community and live as independently as possible,” Williams says. “While I was at Westwood High School, my students were able to get hands-on experience by running the school bookstore. This provided them with customer service experience and a chance to see what it would be like to work in a local business.”
In addition to teaching at Westwood, Williams also worked at Indian River State College’s adult education department two nights per week, a job she still holds. Working in the entry-level lab, Williams says she enjoys the challenges of teaching students who need extra assistance.
“It is so rewarding,” she says, adding “and the students are so appreciative. I love to see them catch on to something.”
When she heard the school district was starting a new program for special needs students, Project SEARCH, Williams applied for the teacher’s position and was hired. Project SEARCH began in the 1960s at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and has been used since then to help students with disabilities gain employment in hospitals throughout the country.
Project SEARCH provides a perfect fit for Williams, who works with a paraprofessional and two job coaches from Employ U. The team works with 12 interns who are training in varied departments at Cleveland Clinic Tradition Hospital. The first year the program began, the students were selected for participation, but now, Williams says, there is an application process and an interview. Applicants for the nearly year-long program must have excellent attendance records in school and no behavior referrals, Williams says. “It is something they have to start thinking about in middle school.”
“This is a transition-to-work program,” she says. “We push them very hard. The interns need to be able to be redirected, take constructive criticism, listen and follow directions.
“We teach them that when they don’t understand, for them to say ‘I don’t understand. Please repeat your question.’ There is so much they are taking in and many of them can take only one-step direction.”
Noting that the hospital in Tradition has been “a fantastic facility to work in,” Williams says the staff has been pleasant and helpful as her team and its interns are at “work.”
“We have had to learn their jobs first so we can train them,” Williams says. “This is a transition to employment program. If they are not hired by the hospital, these are skills that can transition to the community.”
The interns train in 12 areas at the hospital, including transportation, observation, nutrition, environmental services, floor waste management and operating room. In housekeeping (environmental services), they learn how to appropriately clean a patient’s room. When a patient is discharged, Williams adds, they get 35 minutes to clean the room, which means they must be well-trained and efficient. They learn to stock the cabinets at the nurses stations and in the operating rooms. They are trained to take water to the patients, and “they know to look on the board for patients marked NPO (which means they can have no food or water) and to double-check when they enter the rooms for an NPO notification. They have all learned a scripted introduction they say to the patients when they enter a room and they know when to use their gloves and when they need to put gowns on over their scrubs,” she says.
The 12 interns wear red scrubs and the hospital staff is able to identify them as members of Project SEARCH and to offer help when needed.
In the first rotation of interns (from last year), three students were hired. “They had to interview for the jobs and prove they had the skills necessary,” she says. “One was hired as what they call ‘the leg man’ in the operating room. She is responsible for moving the person’s legs onto and off the operating table and has also learned to clean up the OR properly after surgeries. Another was hired in the nutrition area to fix patents’ trays and deliver them. The third was hired in floor waste management. He goes from floor to floor gathering all of the waste material and taking it outside.
“It is amazing to see the students from the beginning of the program to the end,” Williams says. “It is fantastic to see their growth and their confidence and independence. I work with such a wonderful team.”
PAMELA BROWN WILLIAMS
Lives in: Fort Pierce
Age: “My students always ask me how old I am and I tell them I am 27.”
School: St. Lucie County School District
Family: Husband, George; two daughters, Paige Ledgerwood and Payton McBryde; three grandchildren, Palmer and Parker McBryde and Logan Ledgerwood
Education: Associate degree, Indian River Junior College; bachelor’s degree in secondary education, University of Georgia
Background: “I was born and raised in Fort Pierce, the oldest of three daughters of Dr. Winfield and Venetia Brown. I graduated from Dan McCarty High School in 1967, graduated from Indian River Junior College and then from the University of Georgia. I began my career of teaching special education students right after graduation.”
How I got into teaching: “My mother and her sisters were all teachers. It was the first, and only, thing I ever wanted to do.”
What I like best about teaching: “It is rewarding, satisfying, challenging and fun!”
Something my students don’t know about me: “I have always been fascinated by butterflies, and especially love yellow butterflies. I also love growing pineapples.”