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When Cathi Gann took an aptitude test while she was in high school, the results said that she was good at languages.

“I attempted Spanish, but nothing stuck,” she said. “There was a deaf person in our high school who had an interpreter, and I was enthralled with them. I happened to be in every class that student was in, and I started watching them. I picked up sign language by watching the interpreter.” 

During her senior year, Gann was able to do practicum and the Atlanta School for the Deaf was not too far away from where she lived so she volunteered there. This led her to teaching deaf children. 

“As Cochlear implants became more popular, there was less of a need for deaf teachers, so I started to teaching children with other disabilities,” she said. “You have to have a lot of patience and you have to be happy with small improvements in students. The kids that I teach are not going to make giant improvements, but they’ll make small ones over time. I may not even see what I have done because it’s so small.”

She’s been teaching for 27 years now, nine of those years in Lincoln County Schools. Gann, who is now an EC teacher at Lincolnton Middle School, recently received the 2021 Exceptional Children Educator of Excellence Award.  She will be recognized at the Exceptional Children Division’s 70th Conference on Exceptional Children in November. 

Gann has kept in touch with the first deaf student she ever taught and she’s now a pharmacy technician in Virginia. She also has a former student, who’s now a young adult, who has Down Syndrome.

“He calls me every single day to tell me about his day and to ask me about mine,” she said. “I’ve known him from the time he was in third grade. I followed that group of kids from third grade through middle school. He’s part of my drama group that I do in Newton.”

Gann also volunteers at the Green Room in Newton working with children and young adults with special needs to help them to become performers on stage.

Currently, Gann teaches 32 EC students. She also serves as assistant coach for the girls’ basketball team.

“For 15 years, I taught children who were very low functioning, like those with Down Syndrome or low functioning autism,” she said. “The reason I left Catawba County was because I needed a change. It had become a little taxing. The kids I teach here are learning disabled and a lot of them are probably going to be able to go to college. Lincolnton Middle has all of the low functioning kids in the district, so we have three self-contained classrooms here. Every middle school in the county has classrooms like mine. We’re the only school that has classrooms that are contained. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to come to this school. I still love those kids, so I get to be kind of like the grandmother.”

EC teaching positions are hard to fill, Gann added. Not so much because of the children, but because of the mountains of paperwork that needs to be completed on each student.

“There’s a lot of organization,” she said. “The paperwork on each student can take between an hour and three hours to fill out. Then there’s a lot of meetings to attend for each student. The paperwork is the biggest challenge. You also must be able to differentiate instruction. I have students that learn at all different levels.”

As is the case with most students, COVID caused a lot of disruption in learning in Gann’s students. Prior to COVID, she wasn’t terribly comfortable using a computer, but remote learning has brought her into the digital world and she’s thankful for that.

“Last year was such a weird year,” she said. “The kids missed a lot of educational time. I hated that they missed it. I kept my seventh-grade class from last year because I wanted to be able to keep working with them. I have a strong relationship with them. It’s rewarding to know that they trust you and come and talk to you about things. The kids in this building are really special. Some of them have terrible home lives and we’re their positive role models. I like being a positive role model.”

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