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Unsung Hero: Julia Gibson, a special (ed) teacher

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Unsung Hero: Julia Gibson, a special (ed) teacher

TOPSHAM — Some teachers may like to teach the brightest students, so they can bask in the reflected glory of their students' successes.

A few teachers, however, derive deeper satisfaction from working with children with special needs.

Julia Gibson is such a teacher.

Gibson did not set out to be a teacher. As an English major at St. Joseph's College, she was unclear about her career plans, but then serendipity struck.

"In my senior year, I took a course in children's literature, which entailed spending some time in an elementary school," Gibson said. "I discovered that I loved working with little kids."

That discovery prompted her to consider a teaching career. After graduation, she started out by serving as a substitute teacher, which gave her exposure to various grades at different schools. An assignment as a long-term special education teacher at the Gilbert School in Augusta helped her find her niche.

She scored well on a test used to qualify candidates for entry into teacher education programs, and ultimately earned her master's degree in special education from the University of Southern Maine.

After teaching at schools in Dresden, Litchfield, and Belgrade, Gibson took time off to help her parents at their pizza shop. When the shop closed, she decided to go back to teaching, so she took a position as a K-5 special education teacher at the William Cone School in Topsham in 2003.

Today Gibson works with about a dozen students a day, usually in groups, sometimes individually. Her students have learning disabilities, attention deficient disorders or other issues. All of them need the extra care provided by a teaching professional like Gibson.

"I just get these kids," she said. "It's in my nature. I can jump into the skin of an 8-year-old girl or a 10-year-old boy and feel what they're feeling, and see what they're seeing, and work with them accordingly."

The challenging work yields big rewards.

"I love it when I see the neurons fire and a kid lights up when he understands something," Gibson said. "I can see their confidence building up right in front of my eyes."

Jen Nucci, elementary special education coordinator, said she knows Gibson is the right person in the right position.

"Julia is incredibly devoted to the children," she said. "She always has the interests of the kids and their families in mind. She's very energetic and she has a great sense of humor."

Not surprisingly, Nucci recommended that Gibson be appointed to the Maine Autism Leadership Team. "She's training to be a leader in working with autistic children and to serve as a resource person for others teachers," Nucci said.

Gibson's latest accomplishment tapped both her boundless energy and her deep commitment to children with special needs, whether at work or at play. She raised $6,000 for Camp Shriver by running the 2014 Boston Marathon. The camp provides a free camp experience to low-income children ages 8-12, half of whom have special needs.

Patrick Moore, special services director of School Administrative District 75, was not surprised that Gibson chose to run for the Camp Shriver Boston Marathon team. "Julia is able to focus all her life activities on helping others," he said.

Gibson said that when she walks into a crowd of kids, she can spot a kid with special needs. Anyone who sees Julia working with her students can spot a special teacher with the skills to make a lasting difference in the lives of special students.