Lankenau High School's Robert Bird, winner of the 2021 Lindback Foundation Distinguished Teacher Award.

Lankenau High School's Robert Bird, winner of the 2021 Lindback Foundation Distinguished Teacher Award.

By Mike Weilbacher

The Lindback Foundation recently named its 2021 Distinguished Teacher honorees, an annual tradition since 2011, and, wonderfully, TWO Roxborough-area teachers were included, Kelsey Romano, a special education teacher at the Walter B. Saul High School for Agricultural Sciences, and Robert Bird, the founding teacher of the life skills/visually impaired program at Lankenau Environmental Science Magnet High School.

Last week, we shared Kelsey Romano’s remarkable story; this week, we’re shining our spotlight on the equally extraordinary Robert Bird.

Rob teaches the life skills classroom for visually impaired students at Lankenau. “Usually when people think of the visually impaired,” he told me, “the first thing that they think is that all of my students are completely blind. Some are more severely visually impaired than others, but all except for one can read print at this time. One student is learning Braille, but that has been difficult in the virtual world. From a life skills perspective, my job is to develop instruction and pair with other individuals and agencies to prepare my students for a seamless transition to life after high school). The idea is to build vocational skills, domestic maintenance skills, and recreation and leisure skills along with the standard academics.

“This is the only high school life skills classroom for visually impaired students in the district,” he proudly offered, “and I was lucky to start it from the ground up four years ago.”

“Simply put,” Lankenau principal Josh Levinson told me via email, in all caps, “HE IS AMAZING! He created the life skills program from the ground up, and this is the first year we have students graduating from the program. Rob's compassion, attention to detail, and dedication to his students is incredible.”

One of his students, Juliane Nagovich, says in a school tribute video, “You are an amazing teacher - smart, fun, always there for me. You are like family to all of us. Congratulations, you earned it.”

.“I was very surprised and honored that my peers thought of nominating me for the award,” Rob said. “I’m even more surprised that I won knowing how many great teachers there are in Philadelphia.

“I have eight students in my class,” he continued, “and grade levels range from freshman to senior. Related services that work with my students include physical therapy, occupational therapy, orientation and mobility, vision services, speech and language, and a vocational specialist. We work on independent living skills, job skills, community skills, etc. in and out of the classroom. Transportation is another thing that I work on with my students.”

“I have students,” he continued to share, “who when they came to me as freshmen, couldn’t complete simple addition and subtraction facts. Those students can now do more than 100 of each in under five minutes. A lot of ‘limitations’ have been about academics, but I find with time, patience, and determination anyone is capable of making significant gains. These individuals can do almost everything ‘normal’ folks do, it just takes more time, more practice, and someone who is committed to making sure the students ‘get it.’”

Rob of course gets it. “Throughout his time at Lankenau,” says his nomination form, “Robert has continued to demonstrate a high level of perseverance, willingness to change, and determination when faced with the many challenges that come with starting a new program. Robert’s program works at building confidence in his students and teaches individuals to be their own best advocate by instilling a sense of self-determination within each student that will last a lifetime. Every student, regardless of disability, is able to achieve great things in and out of the classroom.”

“One of my worries when I started this position,” he related to me, “was how the rest of the school was going to react to my students, and how my students would react to the rest of the school. The first year I was very protective and didn’t want to put them in any situations where they might fail. During that first year, I learned just how capable and social my group was and decided to take the plunge and let them loose, for lack of a better term. We started working with other classes to do assignments, getting them involved in extracurriculars, and just letting them be teenage kids. What shocked me the most was how accepting the rest of the school was and how strong my students’ social skills were. They began making friends on their own outside the classroom and everyone knows them by their names and personalities and not their disabilities. That was a huge lesson for me, learning to let go and let my students grow on their own just as I would anyone else.”

He does worry about this strange pandemic teaching year: “I feel in some sense that I have lost a year with my students. I miss the daily interactions, and believe that my classroom population benefits most from direct in-person instruction.”

Rob also started Lankenau’s golf program. Wait, golf? “Robert recruited 15 students into the program,” his Lindback application cited, “all of whom had never played the game prior to the start of the program. Through generous donations from friends and family, Robert obtained 20 sets of clubs, bags, balls and other equipment. In the end, the game of golf can teach individuals many of the same lessons in the Life Skills Program… patience, acceptance, and perspective.” Amen.

Congratulations to Rob, his students, and the entire Lankenau community.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

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