CAMAS — It was lunchtime at Helen Baller Elementary School, and special education teacher Amy Campbell didn’t stop moving.
Campbell is the 2020 Washington State Teacher of the Year, an annual award recognizing outstanding educators from across the state. In this brief, chaotic period, she displayed that special spark that earned her that recognition.
Campbell darted from table to table, high-fiving and cheering on the children in her classroom. She leaned in to help classroom assistants feed students. As the meal was ending, she guided kids with their trays to the garbage, then out to recess.
“The fact that I’m not doing anything right now means we’re winning at this,” she said.
OK, well, “not doing anything” is relative. But there’s no doubt that, for Campbell, this lunch period is a victory. Her students, all of whom have a learning disability, were scattered among their neurotypical peers, laughing and chatting. This is what it’s all about to Campbell: inclusion.
Campbell teaches in an integrated communication class at the Camas elementary school – emphasis on integrated. Though Campbell has her own brightly decorated classroom, her goal is that students spend as much time as possible with the rest of the school. It’s a way for her students to learn from and make friends with students in the general education setting, and a chance for those other students, in turn, to build empathy and understanding with people with disabilities.
“That’s how we build community,” Campbell said.
This type of work doesn’t happen overnight. Campbell is a 12-year veteran of the Camas School District, and has spent that time cultivating relationships both inside and outside the school.
“The staff believes in the program,” Principal Aaron Parman said. “(Campbell) works really hard to build relationships and collaborate.”
Take the work she’s done with Micah Snell, for example. Micah is a student in her class with a genetic mutation that hinders communication between the two sides of his brain. He uses a wheelchair, and father Jeff Snell has pushed him in dozens of marathons, raising money for charity.
It’s a cause Campbell has taken up with gusto: she’s run three marathons with Micah, pushing him in his wheelchair. She loves talking to him about the scenes they pass, waving at spectators and sharing in his delight during the run.
“Pushing Micah in marathons is pushing his community,” Campbell said. “He loves riding in marathons, but it’s also building the community understanding, awareness and access.”
“Bringing people together, seeing other people achieve, it brings joy in this world,” she continued.
In the family
The drive to teach runs deep for Campbell. Her father, Phil Phimister, was a special education teacher and cross country coach at Prairie High School for decades. He was her first mentor, and her first inspiration.
Phimister died two years ago. He was 64.
For a time, Phimister encouraged his daughter to pursue other careers. He wanted options for her, she said. But Campbell, who spent hours in her dad’s classroom as a child, kept coming back to teaching.
“He was my biggest champion and he was so proud of me that I was a teacher, and he believed I was the best teacher,” Campbell said. “He bragged about me nonstop.”
So when she was asked during her Teacher of the Year interview who the most influential teacher in her life was, the answer was obvious.
“My dad loved unconditionally and gave unconditionally,” Campbell said. “My dad was my inspiration, and I strive to be my best to make him proud.”
The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction will provide professional development for Campbell and eight other regional teachers of the year recognized by their respective educational service districts. Campbell will also be considered for the National Teacher of the Year award given by the Council of Chief State School Officers. The winner will be announced in a ceremony at the White House next year.