Teaching the teacher: Ashby Lee teacher learns life lessons from her students

Katie Tusing, a second grade teacher at Ashby Lee Elementary School in Quicksburg, gets a standing ovation after her speech Friday during the Shenandoah County Public School's Convocation held at Central High School. Tusing, who wears a prosthetic leg following an accident, was named Teacher of the Year. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – In the middle of a personal crisis, Ashby Lee Elementary School second grade teacher Katie Tusing learned some of life’s most valuable lessons from the students in her class.

Tusing was seriously injured last year after a car hit a utility pole near her home. When she walked down her driveway to investigate, the pole’s guide wire snapped and wrapped around her leg, breaking her tibia and fibula.  Her leg had to be amputated a few days later.

“When I lost my leg in January of 2017, it forced me to do a lot of soul-searching,” Tusing told fellow Shenandoah County teachers during their convocation Friday.

“I wondered about a lot of things. Some were basic, like how would I maneuver with a prosthetic leg and how would I drive. Others were a little more complicated, like how will the person I am change now that I’m an amputee, and will I still be able to, and want to, teach?

“It took me a little while to come to the conclusion that yes, I did still want to teach and I wanted to, in part, because I felt like now, more than ever, I would have an opportunity to reach my students in a different way and educate them on something that some of them may have never been exposed to.

“But is that what ended up happening? Maybe…but that wasn’t my take away experience from the year…my students actually ended up teaching me,” she said.

Tusing, who was named Teacher of the Year, shared the following lessons she learned during the past year from her students:

Ask questions:

“My students had a million questions…just genuine curiosity about things like what had happened to my leg, how my prosthetic looked, why it looked like I had a real foot, what all the parts did, and so on,” Tusing said. “What I learned from my students was that having a conversation and simply asking someone their story was a much more compassionate thing to do than to stare at them and ostracize them.”

Find your sense of humor and rely on it:

“At open house last year, one of my little guys came in and said, ‘Tusing. You’ve got a robot leg. Can you do anything cool like run super fast or are you like a Transformer?’

“I had to inform him that no, unfortunately, my leg didn’t do anything cool like that and I had to stifle a laugh when he looked at me with disappointment all over his face and simply replied, ‘Oh. OK’,” Tusing said with her laugh, which is always at the ready.

“This student and I shared a lot of laughs throughout the year, and he always called my prosthetic a robot leg. He helped me find the humor in what could sometimes be a painful or sensitive thing for me.”

Show empathy; be kind, helpful to others:

When school started last year, Tusing was still using a cane, and she grew tired easily.

“One day one of my students, who is actually a co-worker’s son, said to me: ‘Ms. Tusing, can I carry a chair outside for you so can sit and rest while we play at recess?’

I was so surprised that this 8-year-old had observed my struggle and without prompting came up with a way to help. I was so grateful for his kindness, and it served as a positive reminder to me that as an adult, I am more than capable of being as kind, as empathetic, and as helpful to others, as this student was to me,” Tusing said.

Be persistent and never give up: 

“I witnessed my students working hard and giving it their all every day. There were tough moments and tough days because when things didn’t come easy, it was difficult. But they didn’t give up on me or their goals, and they all made growth,” Tusing said.

Surround yourself with good people and don’t be afraid to ask for help: 

“This was a tough lesson for me, and last year I found myself in uncharted territory in a classroom full of 7- and 8-year-olds that I was going to be forced to ask for assistance. What I discovered is that my students were actually empowered by being able to help. By allowing my students to help me, I learned that they ended up being more willing to accept my help in return,” Tusing said.

Life isn’t fair: 

“This was a painful lesson I learned through the loss of my leg, but I also witnessed this often in my classroom by seeing the things that my students dealt with in their daily lives. We as educators have a unique opportunity to help prepare our students to become resilient individuals and learn to overcome the obstacles they will undoubtedly face throughout their lives. If we don’t take advantage of these chance to help them learn how to deal with the inequities of life, we are doing them a disservice,” Tusing said.

She said she learned that teachers come in many forms, sizes, and ages. Tusing ended her talk by encouraging her fellow teachers to embrace any chance they come across to learn from their students.

“I promise, if you do, you will learn more than you ever thought possible,” Tusing said.