Cathy Cawthorne Miller: A Teacher's Teacher

A pupil holds up an arm to ask a question to a teacher in a classroom at the elementary school on September 4, 2012 in Paris,
A pupil holds up an arm to ask a question to a teacher in a classroom at the elementary school on September 4, 2012 in Paris, after the start of the new school year. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/GettyImages)

From time to time, I will feature an individual who has made a remarkable difference in the lives of our children. These education change agents care about one thing above everything else: the education of our children.

"I believe that every child is teachable. Every single one. With each child, a good teacher can get them from point A to point B to point C and so on.  Each child may not get there at the same level at the same time, but they all can be taught and they all can learn". So says Cathy Cawthorne Miller, an Indianapolis teacher who has taught in that city for over thirty years. Cathy, who has specialized in teaching autistic kids, gave that response after being asked whether poverty was a barrier to kids' learning.  In her view, while there are many factors limiting how fast kids grasp their material and demonstrate growth, they all can get there. Cathy shared with me the story about a young boy who was assigned to her classroom and during their first meeting he continued to climb up and down Cathy's office file cabinets as she was talking with his mother.  "That boy was a challenge," she said.  "He had torn up every classroom he had been in and was well on his way to destroying mine before I found a way to get to him. He had serious deficits, but, boy, was he smart!"

Cathy was born and raised in Indianapolis and educated at Butler University.  She knew she wanted to be a teacher after watching her 6th grade teacher, Vicky Tucker.  "At my core, I always wanted to be Mrs. Tucker. Her impact on me was huge. Knowing how she affected me, I thought it would be neat for me to be able to impact kids in that way." With her career set in her mind, she zeroed in on the plight of autistic children with special needs after hearing a guest lecturer in one of her classes.  The lecturer was a social worker who worked with autistic children.  That one class solidified Cathy's plans. "I am going to teach autistic kids," she vowed. 

And that she did.

For many years Cathy was one of only four elementary school teachers teaching a classroom full of autistic children.  Even today, Cathy lauds her colleagues during that time and the school where she worked "as a gem of a public school."  While she loved the satisfaction that came with helping challenged children learn, working in the school district bureaucracy was constantly draining.  "Central office started to send kids with all kind of deficits to my classroom. Many of these kids needs went far beyond autism, and I began to feel as though my class was a dumping ground," she recalled. "The last straw came when they brought in a young boy who happened to be blind and tethered to a feeding tube. I marched into my supervisor's office and told her I wouldn't be back in the fall."

Since then, Cathy has been working as the lead teacher at the St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf where she sees magic happen every day from kids some view as challenged.

When asked about the Chicago strike, education reform and all the issues relating to teachers and their performance, Cathy has a common sense view. "I understand the frustration of many teachers. Some feel stifled because they believe they have to teach to the test. So much so that they are foregoing innovation and creativity. But there are bad teachers, and it has always felt to me like the bad ones get most of the unions' support and attention."  But Cathy feels equally as strongly about early childhood programs, where Indiana is near the bottom when compared to other states in early childhood funding. Having taught some of the most challenged kids in the public school system, Cathy feels that without strong early childhood programs, many kids are "doomed to starting behind a lot of their peers and thus, having to play catch up in learning the basic educational foundations".

One area Cathy believes in passionately is parent engagement. "It is so important to get parents engaged and it can be done. I don't buy this idea that poor parents can't be brought along. The vast majority of my kids' parents were low-income, and eventually I was able to get many of them actively engaged in their child's education." Cathy recalls one public housing single mother who initially resisted Cathy's urges to get involved in her child's education.  She repeatedly called the parent and was often rebuffed.  On one occasion, the woman finally said to Cathy, "OK.  You keep calling me.  What do you have to b---- about now?". Cathy calmly said to the parent, "I have been trying to reach you because I wanted to talk with you about the three goals you had in mind for your child this school year." The woman was stunned to the point of silence. Cathy realized that this parent had never been asked to be an equal partner in the academic advancement of her child.  From that point on, that particular parent was fully engaged in her child's education.

Has it all been worth it?  Without question, Cathy says yes -- emphatically. She calls teaching food for the soul. And she loves all the kids who have entered her classroom over the years.  "These kids are so phenomenal.  They all work so hard to achieve. It has been an honor to play a small part in their growth and development. I just love what I do."