Janis Heater one of many school employees retiring at the end of a long and successful career at local school districts

Although she has worked in education, primarily in elementary schools, for more than 33 years, Janis Heater says she can't quite recall what led her down her career path.

'Probably because I liked and admired my teachers and had a lot of teachers help me along the way,' Heater says one afternoon in her classroom at Woodland Elementary School in Fairview. She knew in high school she wanted to work with children with special needs - another interest she's not sure how she developed.

'Compassion, I suppose,' she says.

For 28 years of her teaching career, Heater has worked in the Reynolds School District with elementary school children who have special learning needs. Heater, who will retire at the end of this school year, is unsure of exactly how many students she's worked with.

Yet her colleagues say that she has made an invaluable difference in the lives of her young students, many of whom were struggling to keep up in their classes because of a learning issue and could have been overlooked and left behind if not for her help.

Fellow teachers say she's also made an impact in morale among staff. She's brought a contagious enthusiasm for the University of Oregon Ducks and active support for soldiers serving overseas.

Heater's title at Woodland Elementary is resource teacher. She works with students, ranging in age from kindergarten to fifth-grade, who have been identified as having issues that affect their ability to learn: They might have learning or intellectual disabilities, visual, speech and hearing impairments; some may be struggling with emotional issues at home, such as anxiety and depression from the worry of having a parent deployed with the military, or issues of poverty and hunger.

Heater oversees each student's Individualized Education Program, a specially designed curriculum that focuses on helping a student improve his or her reading, math and writing skills or whatever their needs may be to make them successful in school.

'The plan is to teach (the students) strategies to cope with, to accommodate for, to work around or to overcome,' Heater says about her work.

Her job has changed quite a bit over the years, she says. Expectations for the students' academic and social norms are higher, and they're more integrated into their classrooms, rather than being isolated from the other kids, she says. Other issues, such as fetal alcohol syndrome and personal traumas, have led to new areas of research, she says.

There can be a social stigma and embarrassment for some students to admit they are in special needs classes, Heater says. But she tries to make herself available to her students and notes her door is always open. Some students may visit her once or twice a day, just to talk and share stories, she says.

Heater says her approach to teaching is to get to know the students on a personal level and build relationships with them. In the morning and afternoons she has crosswalk duty, allowing her to meet with students who are not in the resource program.

'I love it,' she says. 'It's a great way to start off the day and make a connection with the students before they enter the building.'

Even after her students leave elementary school, Heater says she likes to keep in touch with many of them or check up on them. One of her former students, now a freshman, has become an honor roll student and a top softball player despite a learning disability. Another former student survived a bout with cancer in high school and has recovered well, she says.

'You want to know you've made a difference,' she says.

Fellow teachers offer praise

Before going to Woodland Elementary, Heater taught at Wilkes Elementary for 21 years, and at Troutdale and Hartley elementary schools.

For Heater's retirement party with lead secretary Sally Altig, who is also retiring, many of her former colleagues visited Woodland and shared stories over cake and coffee.

Many colleagues praised Heater not only for her work with students and parents, but for making their work much more enjoyable.

Anna Parker, a speech pathologist at Wilkes Elementary who has worked with Heater since 2000, says Heater developed good relationships with all of the students and fellow teachers, providing the extra support the students needed to be successful.

Celeste Dryer, a fourth-grade teacher at Woodland, says Heater has made it easier for her to make sure she's meeting the academic needs of her students. Heater is able to meet with a parent and student and hone in on what the student's needs are and if he or she has a special need or just needs more encouragement in the classroom, Dryer says.

Not only have many of her students improved academically, Dryer says, but they love to work with Heater.

'I consider myself on good terms with all of my students, but they don't hug me,' Dryer says. 'But they see (Heater) in the halls, and they hug her.'

Dryer says one girl in her class was struggling with reading, and the girl's mother was concerned that her daughter was not getting the attention she needed. Heater met with the girl and her mother and deduced that the girl needed more reassurance and encouragement with her reading. By working with the girl on her reading skills, she is now able read above her grade level, Dryer adds.

Her ease with the students also extends to their parents, Dryer says. In one case, a child's father was a military veteran who was going through a difficult period, but Heater was able to make him and the student open up and feel comfortable with her, Dryer says.

Jillian Vizzini, a fifth-grade teacher at Woodland, says her students who have gone to Heater for extra help have shown tremendous improvement.

'She has high expectations for (the students), and she does not let their disabilities be an excuse,' Vizzini says.

An alumna of the University of Oregon, Heater says she loves to decorate her car, her classroom and the staff lounge with Ducks gear, and she's proud to have fostered a friendly rivalry with the Oregon State Beavers supporters at the school.

Dryer notes that Heater's enthusiasm, such as her penchant for dressing in green and yellow, has helped make students excited about the possibility of them eventually going to college.

Heater has also organized care packages to National Guard soldiers overseas and gotten students excited about writing letters to the soldiers. She says she thought it would be fun to show support for the soldiers, noting she has had several friends and friends' family members serving in the military.

Marty Larsen, a counselor at Woodland, says Heater built a sense of community at Woodland, helping to keep the energy and spirit up among staff, even during difficult times.

'For me, she's made it more fun,' Larsen says.

Heater and her husband, David, a retired Reynolds High School math teacher, reside in Gresham. Heater has three children, a foster daughter and three stepchildren, as well as one granddaughter and eight step-grandchildren.

For her retirement, Heater says she plans to spend more time helping to raise her 14-month-old granddaughter. She also hopes to start doing volunteer work, possibly something related to education, she says.

Heater adds that she'll miss working with her colleagues and with the students, noting that she'd like to know how many of them turn out.

'If my job were strictly working with the kids, I probably wouldn't retire.'

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