The sound of chairs scraping the floor fills the spacious classroom as students in Andover High School’s Special Education department get ready for their snack time. Mrs. Damphousse, a life skills teacher, swiftly moves around the classroom speaking to the kids like a busy mother as she makes sure everyone in the Excel One program is settled and acting appropriately.

Snack time is just one part of the very repetitive schedule and set of routines the Excel students follow in order to be comfortable in the sometimes overwhelming High School environment. It is Mrs. Damphousse’s job to make sure these students are prepared to thrive outside the school environment by teaching them everyday essential life skills.

Mrs. Damphousse had known she wanted to work with disabled youth ever since she was a student at AHS. She explains how education runs in her family and says, “I mean it’s just gravitating towards, I think, what is being taught in these type of things. I prefer doing this than more of the academic. I love teaching life skills, I like going out in the community, doing the cooking skills.”

As soon as one of the many students begins to disobey, she goes right over to address and solve the problem. While working with the student, her voice is stern and no signs of frustration or anger cross her face. Eventually she succeeds in getting the student to listen and do what they are supposed to.

Before working at AHS, Mrs. Damphousse worked at West Elementary as a life skills teacher there. She assumed that her work would continue with the younger kids but then she accepted a job at the High School. “[W]hen you’re working with students like this you might even actually physically guide them to sit in a chair.” she reflects. “Where now I can say, ‘line up’ and for the most part they can line up or go get a pencil. So that independence; I have to say I like the High School.”

According to the US Census, in 2010, 5.2% of United States civilian non institutionalized population age 5-17 were disabled. Also, only 89%-93% of these students were attending school. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that in 2014 only 17.1% of disabled people were employed in the US. Mrs. Damphousse is one of the many unsung heroes trying to change this by giving disabled children, as she explains, “the skills to be able to function in a job or what they need to be successful.”

Mrs. Damphousse is admired by her students as well as her colleagues. Jean Tarricone, the Head of the Special Education Department describes her as, “[e]xtremely dedicated, she takes her job very seriously that’s the first word that comes to mind. Even though she is really warm and nurturing of the kids, she’s very serious about preparing them for the future.”

While in High School, Mrs. Damphousse was part of a youth group that began her involvement with disabled youth. She also took part in events such as the Special Olympics during college.

Along with being fun, her job has sometimes proven to be stressful. She says that the limited amount of time to work with students makes it hard accomplish everything that teachers would like to do during class time.

One of her best memories as a life skills teacher is when she was out in the community with her students. One of the students had always had trouble with reading and comprehension. While on Main Street the students were reading signs and responding to questions about the meanings to the instructions. The student read a sign and was able to comprehend the meaning of it. She recalls, that moment saying that it was a relief to finally see that her methods were working and that he would be able to have this skill moving on in his life. “Seeing that and having them be appropriate is huge,” Mrs. Damphousse recalls.

Mrs. Tarricone explains, “[I]t’s a journey that we take together, we walk with the parents through that journey and there are bumps along the way but in the end the students are very, very prepared for the future.”        

By Sydney Bergan