REYNOLDS TEACHER ADVOCATES FOR STUDENTS
Linda Rua didn’t expect to become a teacher while growing up.
Rua said she was often bored in class and eventually dropped out of high school. But now, with degrees from Warner Pacific University and Pacific University, she helps students with disabilities engage with their learning and be part of their school community.
Rua, who was the first person in her family to attend college, started the functional life skills program at Reynolds Middle School in Fairview 11 years ago. Prior to that, students with moderate and severe disabilities received outside placements through the Multnomah Education Service District.
“It’s a labor of love,” Rua said, discussing working with her 10 students. “We don’t babysit. We teach.”
In the functional life skills classroom, there is a poster depicting different emotions and a list of student jobs. Students who are nonverbal can point to pictures to communicate with others. In the nearby sensory room, students can manage difficult emotions by using one of the pull up bars or a trampoline.
“How can I help my students become productive parts of society?” Rua said. “I want them to be part of their community. They’ve always been tucked away, and that broke my heart.”
Core elements of Rua’s teaching philosophy are setting expectations for her students and treating them with respect.
“It’s all about student dignity. If you expect them to step up, you’ve got to treat them that way. If you set the bar high, they may not reach it but they’ll reach for it,” she said. “For so long, people have done things for them.”
She added that treating students in an age-appropriate way is also important.
“They’re no longer elementary school kids. We don’t sing songs or hold hands,” she said. “They’re still learning the alphabet and the days of the week, but we do it in rap form.”
Rua also works to ensure that her students are not excluded from experiences at school.
“They deserve everything that their peers do,” she said, noting that they participate in a school-wide program in which students earn rewards for positive behavior that can be used as raffle tickets or to buy items from the student store. “Eighth grade graduation, we’re there. We want to have them do all of the things their peers do.”
Rua also focuses on teaching students about self-advocacy.
“I love it when my kids say no and they show me the problem and we can fix it,” she said. “That lets them feel that power.”
Each day, Rua’s students spend time at vocational stations where they work on tasks like sorting and assembling items. They also learn to give feedback and ask for help while working.
“The goal is to help them be employable,” Rua said. “If they’re employable, they’re part of their community and they can have independence.”
Multiple times, Rua has come across her former students working in the community.
“It’s amazing, and the greatest thing,” she said.
Recalling her own frustration with school, Rua always ensures activities have a practical application. For example, rather than simply have students count blocks, she’ll have them count the number of sprinkles they’ll use when frosting cookies.
She enjoys watching her students gain new skills.
“I love what these kids can do. They make steps toward progress and then they realize that they can do it on their own,” she said.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, general education students would work as teacher’s assistants in Rua’s classroom.
“It was the most amazing peer mentorship. They couldn’t make it in regular classes, but here, a whole different kid came out,” she said. “We have a peer mentor contract that says they have to be a good role model. Kids who had been getting in fights stopped.”
When the Reynolds School District switched to distance learning in 2020, Rua set up iPads from the school for her students and delivered them to their homes. She returned as needed to troubleshoot technology and deliver items like art supplies, play dough and bubbles.
Along with virtual reading and math lessons, social emotional learning was a significant focus during distance learning.
“I wanted them to know their peers when they got to the building,” Rua said.
Rua often teaches students for all three years of middle school, which lends itself to creating close relationships.
“I don’t want to change them. I want to enhance them and grow their instincts,” she said. “This is a gift. I get to help shape who they’ll become. That’s huge for me.”
Several years ago, Rua was diagnosed with cancer. She continued working in the functional life skills classroom and received radiation treatments after school. She credits continuing to work with her students with helping her get through the experience.
“I truly love coming to work. This is something that I get to do,” she said. “I’ll be 80 years old in here with a walker. I can’t imagine retiring.”