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Portage Park Elementary Special Education Teacher Has Her Students' Backs

 Clarissa Dolan left a career as an administrative assistant to become a special education teacher.
Clarissa Dolan
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PORTAGE PARK — At the start of the school year, Portage Park Elementary School teacher Clarissa Dolan knew one eighth-grade student was going to require a little more time and attention than the others during her afternoon special education reading class.

"He seemed committed to getting off track, and taking the other students with him," Dolan said, recalling how he would whisper constantly and talk out of turn.

But Dolan, 54, who is in her first year as a special education teacher at Portage Park Elementary School and her 10th as a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, wasn't about to let that behavior disrupt her class.

"I sat him down and told him I was taking him with me and that he was going to learn," Dolan said. "I was frustrated with him, but I didn't let him see that."

Slowly, the student began to participate in class. And now, he regularly contributes thought-provoking insights to the class discussion.

"I think he saw that I cared about him," Dolan said. "He knew I wasn't going to give up on him."

That sort of commitment and caring has made Dolan a crucial part of the faculty at the Portage Park neighborhood school, Principal Maureen Ready said.

"She's a magnificent teacher," Ready said. "She always has so much positive energy, even though she has some of the hardest kids to teach."

Dolan's students are coping with a wide variety of challenges, including autism and learning disabilities, as well as emotional and developmental issues, Ready said.

"But you wouldn't know that walking by her classroom," Dolan said. "You would think they were all angels."

Dolan came to Portage Park Elementary School after working as a case manager at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy, determined to focus her efforts on helping special education students in the classroom.

"Teaching is really my passion," Dolan said. "I think about it day and night."

Dolan, who lives in Norwood Park with her husband and has a grown son, became a teacher a decade ago, after a career as an administrative assistant.

"This is really, really what I want to do," Dolan said, adding that she became a special education teacher to reach students like her nephew, who has special needs. "I always teach my students the way I would hope someone would teach my son, with respect and care."

Recently, students in Dolan's afternoon reading class studied "Number the Stars" by Lois Lowry, which chronicles a Jewish family's escape from the Nazis before World War II.

Dolan met each student's contribution to the discussion with enthusiasm.

"I love how you said that," Dolan said to one student.

"You are completely on the money," she said to another, prompting a grin quickly hidden behind a cupped hand.

That specific praise is part of Dolan's strategy of building her students up in their classrooms and filling them with confidence that they can do anything they want to do, she said.

The biggest challenge Dolan said she faces is making sure all of her students — who have different issues and strengths — get what they need from her.

"You have to get to know these students," Dolan said. "They have to know you have their back and that you will advocate for them."

In addition, Dolan said she does her best to be as flexible as possible with her students, knowing that they face a daunting challenge in trying to learn.

For example, if that means a student with emotional issues wants to sit with his bookbag wrapped around him, Dolan said she won't insist that he put it down.

"You absolutely have to pick your battles," Dolan said. "You have to respect what they need."

There is nothing like seeing the face of a student change when he or she masters a concept or understands something he or she thought they never would, Dolan said. 

"I can't tell you how that makes me feel," Dolan said. "It is hard to explain. It is the best feeling in the world."

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