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Lehigh Middle’s Teresa Rigdon named Educational Support Person of the Year

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Feb 17, 2021

Teresa Rigdon. PHOTO PROVIDED

news@breezenewspapers.com

The desire to help, heal and share her love with people has earned Lehigh Acres Middle School’s Teresa Rigdon. the honor of Educational Support Person of the Year for the School District of Lee County.

“My reaction when I was surprised, was surreal. I was just so amazed that I was being rewarded for something that I am so passionate about. I do not look at my work in terms of ‘work,’ income or reward,” said Rigdon, a peer mediation counselor. “I show up each day hoping to help one or two people and I leave knowing I helped much more than that. I was honored to represent our LAMS family and appreciative of the support and recognition of my co-workers and the district. It truly takes a village and I have been blessed to work alongside so many caring people who strive to change the culture of our schools and for the betterment of our students.”

The Lehigh Acres Middle School employee was surprised in her classroom Thursday, Feb. 11, and presented with the award, which represents the “thousands of dedicated staff members that work in Lee County Schools every day.”

For being the Educational Support Person of the Year, she won a prize package valued at $2,229.95. It includes a three day/two night stay at South Seas Resort; a $500 VISA gift card from Suncoast Credit Union Foundation; massage gift pack from Massage Envy; full service wash book from Eager Beaver Car Wash; bouquet from Ruth Messmer Florist; gift card from Dunkin’ Donuts; gift certificate from Snyderman Shoes; gift card from Burntwood Tavern and a custom name tag from Fred’s Award World.

Rigdon was nominated by school administrators and/or her colleagues. The candidates are reviewed by district and school based staff and the finalists are interviewed before the recipient is chosen.

“This award really means so much to me. On a professional level, it makes me proud to share this award with all of my wonderful co-workers and students. It inspires me to want to do even better. On a personal level, it makes me proud to share with my children and family. I am able to model that when you work hard for the things that you believe in, you can achieve great things. Character truly matters,” she said. “Exactly this time last year I lost my mother. This has been a devastating year for me, so this was also a beautiful distraction of her anniversary of passing. Although I wish I could call her and tell her, I know she was there the whole time. I share this award with everyone who shows up each day to make a difference.”

Five years ago Rigdon began working for the Lee County School District, with four of those years at LAMS. When she began working at LAMS, the Peer Mediation Program was in its second year.

“At the time, my son was in the MTSS and 504 program. I was coming into meetings and his coordinator at the time kept encouraging me to apply there,” she said. “Once I started, I was assisting her with 504/MTSS and mediations. She trained me to be ‘her’ rather than a para, so I knew all sides of the position. I was the sensitive one and she was the reality- based one. It was a great balance and it allowed me to really fall into my role. Children were opening up to me and fights were declining. The need for this program was in such demand that I was doing more mediations than anything else. Once she left the district, I was carrying the torch, so to speak.”

Rigdon said she found when adults solve students’ conflicts it puts a temporary bandage on student issues.

“Peer Mediation is a proactive and long-term approach to teaching students problem solving and leadership skills,” she said.

As a peer counselor, Rigdon facilitates the mediation process and only intervenes when needed. LAMS has two mediators, as well as the students involved in the conflict.

“This is a student-led program where trained mediators provide restorative practice-based solutions to the conflict,” she said. “Students review a list of rules and make sure that the participants are willing to solve their conflict. If they are not, we cannot and will not do them. You have to be willing to solve it and be honest about your part in it. There are times where a student does not want a peer mediator, or there aren’t any available that block, so I will counsel myself, or with another staff member.”

The process begins by recruiting mediators, which are often found through their own Peer Mediation. Rigdon identifies certain traits that the students may have.

“At the same time, selecting them is helpful to the students as they usually have leadership qualities and students look up to them and it helps the student to stay out of drama and learn to reform their behavior by helping others,” Rigdon said. “The interview process teaches them real life skills.”

The training includes real scenarios of past mediations, how to read nonverbal communication skills, keeping mediations confidential and providing tools to fix the damage caused by the conflict.

Rigdon also runs the “Resolution Den/Time Out Room” at LAMS. Here, instead of looking at a wall for the block of time, they assist in packing the bags.

“It makes them feel important and gives them a sense of purpose even when they make mistakes. Allowing children to help, they feel needed, worthy and valued,” she said.

If that was not enough, the School Related Employee of the Year also became involved with developing the anti-bullying curriculum and “Think Up” curriculum with Cassandra Davis. She said she wanted to get involved in the creation of the curriculum because she occasionally has repeat students with repetitive behaviors during mediations.

“Part of the mediation process is identifying if it is a peer conflict, or bullying. If it is bullying, we have an entirely different process,” Rigdon said. “Peer conflict is a normal way of communicating, but bullying is something that I am very passionate about ending.”

The curriculum is a five-hour session that consists of power points, videos, interactive activities and reflections. The program is ready to go and Rigdon and Davis will facilitate and assist the students. The curriculum will be provided to any student who goes through the bullying process on a case-by-case basis.

“Once COVID restrictions are lifted, we can resume educating on a larger scale,” Rigdon said.

She also facilitates a student-led anti-bulling group, which has gone to elementary schools, classrooms, as well as held assemblies to talk about bullying.

“The boys asked to start this group two years ago because a few of them were the bullies. They wanted to reform others through their example. Due to COVID restrictions, we are limited on what we can do, so we decided to make it a curriculum this year. We believe that treating all parties is detrimental in solving the bullying crisis. We are able to counsel, educate and provide interventions/tools to encourage better choices for the ‘bully’ and provide counseling and support to the victim,” Rigdon said.

In addition to being a peer counselor, Rigdon also takes care of the Nutrition Bank at LAMS.  She supplies backpacks to students in need by reaching out to agencies and faculty for donations to send students home with food and drinks for the weekend.

“We service students in foster care, low income and homeless students,” Rigdon said. “We partner with Blessings in a Backpack and Harry Chapin Food Bank.”

The students are either referred by the school’s social worker, or staff/student referral. She said sometimes she identifies them by talking to them, or when meeting with a student and noticing the symbol next to their name when pulling their schedule. Rigdon is then called in and offered assistance.

“Every Wednesday and Friday we pack the bags to ensure they have nourishment while they are not with us. The students return their bags on Monday and we clean them and replace the food. The students know that we care about them and it also teaches them to be responsible by making sure they bring them back on time and to show them that they have a little control over their circumstances,” she said.

The diversity of what she does at LAMS is what she enjoys most about her job, especially seeing the progress and growth of her students.

“My days go by fast but I leave knowing I was able to help people from start to finish. I serve as a Restorative Practice Coordinator, in the Student Affairs office. I advocate for students and encourage them to recognize their behaviors, so that they can be accountable and repair them. Sometimes they just need a break. Other times they need a room to take a test without distractions, or to sit during lunch because they are anxious or over stimulated. The goal is always to support, but guide them to ease back into their classroom, or lunch room feeling confident and ready to learn. When students come for time out, I counsel them on ways to correct the behavior and to showcase their strengths instead,” Rigdon said.

In addition to working with the students, she also meets with their teachers offering discussions on how they can better understand the students’ individual needs, as well as providing support to them, so they do not feel overwhelmed.

“I love that I am able to help people in such a large capacity,” she said. “My room is a non-judgmental, safe place for students and staff to come and cool down, mediate, counsel, or just check in. Students feel comfortable there and always know that they are cared for. I love that I have the full support of my administrators to do what I love to do and that when I have to come to them, they already know that I have provided every resource I can before that point.”

This love she has developed for helping other students stemmed from a negative experience when she was young at school. She said she struggled to fit into the cookie cutter expectations of education. Rigdon was not allowed to write with her left hand, had ADD and struggled with dyslexia.

“I did not know how to communicate with my teachers and I was often misunderstood by them,” she said. “I would avoid class and started not wanting to come to school. They assumed that because I kept giving up on myself that I did not care, but I always did. I hoped they would understand me and what I was really thinking and needing.”

Rigdon never imagined she would want to step foot in another school again.

“To see me now working in a school is just a beautiful thing,” she said. “Now I can relate to my students and advocate for them. I can communicate with their teachers when there are personality conflicts, so that they understand what the root cause of their deficits, or behaviors may be stemming from. Bringing them together helps the students and teacher communicate away from peers and allows them to see each other differently and begin the next day with a clean slate. I feel most fulfilled knowing that I have an opportunity to be a light in the darkness.”

Rigdon said the lessons they work on today most definitely will impact their future. She said although it is important to support academics, she is most passionate about fostering positive relationships, character development and self-advocacy skills to her students.

“What good is a scholar who has no emotional regulations skills or an adult who never learned how to properly handle mistakes, failures or conflict? What good is the pressured student who gets straight A’s, but is depressed and overwhelmed? Being book smart will get you into college, but it does not prepare you for life. They will forget all the answers they had to memorize, but they most certainly won’t forget how we made them feel,” Rigdon said. “The pandemic has brought many adaptations and restrictions, but one thing I have noticed is that it only highlighted the need for more trauma informed care and educating the whole student in our schools. I am honored and empowered to lead the way for more of that.”