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The NPR Ed team has been on the lookout for great teaching, and this led them to Lisa Elder. She teaches delinquent kids about manners, laundry and a good handshake. And she does this at a juvenile facility in Vermont. Elissa Nadworny has the story.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Drugs, theft, assault and life coaching - welcome to Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, Vermont's only facility for youth in trouble. Young people come from all over the state for smaller crimes like shoplifting or selling drugs to felony charges like sexual assault or murder.
On the second floor, Lisa Elder's classroom. She doesn't teach math or English, though they're offered here. She doesn't have a lesson plan or an attendance book. She does have a large walkie-talkie.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Downstairs is ready.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: English ready.
LISA ELDER: Life skills ready.
NADWORNY: Three teens - two boys, one girl - shuffle into her concrete room. They're dressed in blue and maroon polos, black shorts, no pockets and black slip-on shoes - Woodside's standard uniform.
ELDER: Why don't you have a seat? And I'm going to tell you guys what we're doing.
NADWORNY: Lisa teaches life skills. I'll let her explain what that is.
ELDER: If you want to wake up in the morning and go out and greet people and walk into your office, walk into your classroom - those - we're already talking about skills right there that are needed.
NADWORNY: She teaches her student to use napkins, to fill out a form with good handwriting, to learn how to open a bank account.
ELDER: For some kids, it's like, God, I just hope you get better and you're able to sit in a room with three people. You know, I hope that someday when you get angry that you aren't violent.
NADWORNY: For other kids, she's seen them get their GED, even go on to college. But most days, she's teaching intangibles - empathy, forgiveness, understanding. Today, the class is cutting out leaves and writing life skills on them.
ELDER: Which is pretty cool.
NADWORNY: Completed leaves read patience, hygiene. There's a few interruptions, but it's going well. Then Lisa notices a boy named Brandon. We've agreed not to use his or any other student's last name in order to protect their privacy.
Brandon - he's upset. He's hunched over and he's got his fists clenched against his chest. It's shaking. It doesn't look like anything to me, but Lisa has seen this behavior in his file. It's a warning sign. She calls for backup.
ELDER: Could I have a youth worker come on up to life skills - nonemergent.
NADWORNY: It's amazing how calm everyone is. Lisa's approach - roll with it, don't get fazed. The youth worker comes, and by now, Brandon's turned his desk to face the back wall. He's getting more and more agitated. He's still not responding.
ELDER: OK, Brandon, here are the choices. If you want to stay in my classroom and participate, I would love you to and I will do anything I can to help you. But if all you're going to do is turn your back and avoid everything that people are asking of you, then I'm going to have you brought down to the unit. I would like you to make the better choice and stay with me.
NADWORNY: Unfortunately, that's not the choice Brandon makes. It becomes clear. He could go off at any moment. Lisa evacuates the room.
ELDER: So, like, when I tell you that I don't really know what the day's going to bring, that's a perfect example.
NADWORNY: Even in this moment, Lisa is enthusiastic, laughing and cracking jokes with the other two students. She's 52. She's a bit of a hippie and a diehard Bruce Springsteen fan. She's taught almost every school subject at Woodside - math, English, even a little science. In nearly three decades, she's seen it all.
ELDER: I have been assaulted only once in any serious manner. And I had to go back in the next day because if I didn't I didn't think I ever would.
NADWORNY: She's been going back every morning for 27 years. She likes it. She's good at it. More importantly, she connects with the kids.
ELDER: I say this after the kids - I say, you know, public schools don't want you or me.
NADWORNY: One of the biggest challenges for Lisa - her class changes daily. Kids come and go. When I visit Woodside, there's 13 kids. The oldest is days away from his 18th birthday. The youngest is 12. One boy has been there for nearly two years; another just arrived last night.
ELDER: I'm looking at kids who are 14 years old who've been getting kicked out of schools since day cares. People give up on these kids.
NADWORNY: For many, Woodside is the first stable place they've had. Most have experienced trauma. They come from troubled homes, foster care, even from the streets.
ELDER: We've had kids who've never used forks and spoons.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: If we're going to do branches, we should, like, do an outline.
ELDER: Yeah, that's - hey, my trunk is good.
NADWORNY: The next day, I return to Lisa's classroom. Brandon's back. He's in good spirits. He' wearing a paper pirate hat. Lisa and a girl named Emily are sitting on the floor.
EMILY: I've been here at least four times.
NADWORNY: She describes herself as a handful for Lisa. She says most adults were angry about her repeat visits but not Lisa.
EMILY: She didn't yell at me. She's just like, well, you shouldn't be back, but I guess it's good that you're getting the help you need.
NADWORNY: Emily says she likes life skills. It's not so much the class, the curriculum, the lessons - it's the teacher.
EMILY: She's just, like, you can tell she cares. Like, no matter how mad you get, no matter how many names you call her, you know she cares. In the end, you know she cares.
NADWORNY: She repeats it again. You just know she cares. It's almost as if she's telling me and reminding herself at the same time. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Essex, Vt.
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