This is not a quiet classroom.
Patty McDonald stands before the nine students in her class, drilling them on a lesson about the difference between the concepts of “more” and “less.”
Each child is encouraged to place different numbers of multicolored plastic bears in cups labeled “A” and “B,” and then determine which has the least.
Each child works on the task with varying degrees of noisy success. Cups are rattled, bears are frequently spilled onto the floor. Some children punctuate their activity with sound effects and other vocalizations. One boy provides a constant musical accompaniment to the exercise with song.
McDonald is unfazed by the din, correcting each child as needed and occasionally raising a small paper sign with the word “quiet” when the noise level swells too much.
“Eyes up,” she says. The children comply and the next set of numbers is revealed on the white board behind her. Assisted by two in-class therapists, each child in McDonald’s class gets individual attention for each task as the lesson for the entire class pushes forward.
“To differentiate in my class is the norm,” said McDonald, who teaches children with autism spectrum disorder at Columbia Middle School. “You have 10 little bitty lessons going on. Their sensory needs are so different. Different methods are required at every table, every desk.”
It’s a job that requires almost infinite patience and understanding, but MCDonald, Columbia County’s Teacher of the Year, said it is a job she was meant to do.
“I have grown up my entire life knowing nothing but tolerance and knowing nothing but compassion for people with specials needs,” said McDonald, 33, who is in her second year teaching the autism spectrum class and in her 11th year as an educator. “It’s in my blood.”
McDonald said she grew up seeing how her uncle Larry, who had profound special needs, was treated by her grandparents.
“Watching my grandmother and my grandfather take care of him and the devotion it takes and the compassion and the all-around genuine love it takes, I’ve seen that my whole life,” she said. “He was a huge part of what I do.”
McDonald said her uncle was always included in family activities and made part of every gathering.
“He was in everything we did,” she said. “We never left him behind. My grandparents made sure he was at every wedding he went to every family reunion, and he stayed at home with them. He was never institutionalized.”
McDonald began teaching near her hometown in Jefferson County after graduating from Georgia Southern University in 2002. She moved to Columbia County six years ago, after marrying Johnny McDonald Jr., major crimes investigator with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, They have a 3-year-old daughter.
Until last fall, McDonald had been Columbia Middle’s instructional extension teacher, tutoring children who needed additional help with reading and math. Then the autism spectrum job became available in November.
“When I saw this opening I thought “Oh, my gosh, this is what I’ve done my whole life,” she said.
Columbia Middle Principal Steven Cummings said McDonald hit the ground running in the class and hasn’t looked back. He said her drive and willingness to collaborate set the example for her colleagues.
“Awesome, awesome, awesome is what I think about her,” he said. “She is the best thing that has happened to this school.”
Cumming noted that McDonald had been selected as the school’s Teacher of the Year once before and had earned the honor at her previous school in Jefferson County.
She will represent the county in the statewide Teacher of the Year competition in November.
McDonald said she is still in shock over the honor.
“At the board meeting when they called my name, I literally almost fell out of my chair. I had to wait a few seconds before I could stand up and walk,” she said. “There are so many dynamic teachers in this school. I think we have the best faculty in the county. It is all about students here. For my peers to select me was a tremendous honor.”