by nathan oster
Dawn Thur’s peers at Greybull High School have described her as “one of the most kind-hearted teachers” they’ve ever encountered, “the heartbeat of the Life Skills classroom” and as “the sun, the moon and the stars” to her students.
Cleary teaching is more than just a job to her. For all that she does to bring out the best in her students and help them brighten the days of other students and even staff members through their interactions, coffee and cookies, Thur has been named Big Horn County School District No. 3’s teacher of the year.
The daughter of Gerald and Debbie Crist, Dawn is a Greybull native and 1993 GHS graduate who chose to come back to her hometown in the fall of 2012. She started as a mild/moderate special education teacher at GES before making the move to GHS to take over as the Life Skills special education teacher, replacing Cathy Kunkel.
Prior to that, she had worked in the Denver Public Schools and at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston.
Several teachers were nominated for the teacher of the year award.
The nomination, however, was just the beginning. For them to be considered, staff members must fill out a questionnaire and ask colleagues for letters of recommendation. It’s not a simple process and Thur admitted that she wrestled with whether to pursue it.
“To be honest, it just felt good to be nominated. You don’t know who does it — could be a student, a parent, another teacher — and I still don’t know. But I felt that if someone went to the trouble to nominate me, the least I could do was fill out the application.”
Now that she has been named the winner, Thur acknowledges that, “I didn’t realize how badly I needed to be appreciated. I know that sounds weird, but we do what we do not for awards. I work in the company of a lot of people. We are faulty as one, but together, with synergy, we are an awesome family that looks out for these kids and helps them be their best.
“But honestly, any one of these people could have gotten this award. In our district, they could give the award to whomever and they’d be deserving.”
Thur said she felt “validated” by the process, in that, “What I see my role as is not only accepted, but also appreciated.”
Thur was asked about the challenges of teaching special education students.
She believes she’s right where she belongs, saying, “I teach kids nobody else can get through to … or the ones they want desperately to get through to but can’t because they have 30 other kids in their classroom.
“We work as a team in this room to wrap our arms around them all.”
Thur keeps the lights in her office down, saying her kids find the environment comforting, and under her watch, the Life Skills room has become a gathering place where general education students and staff come for coffee or cookies, which her students make fresh every day. Or as one of her peers put it, “the place to be if you want to stop, take a deep breath, recharge, feel confident and prepare to meet the world head on.”
Thur summed up what she does this way: “My job is to do whatever it takes to get a kid to sit in the special education room, access information they need because they feel good and their sensory needs are being met, have a visual schedule that helps them and listen to them.”
The ultimate goal, she said, is to get those who are able to a general education teacher and included with their peers so they can learn from their peers and pay attention to the general education teacher.
“In this job, you get really good at recognizing beauty where other people wouldn’t see it,” she said. “When I started in special education, it was mostly about academics. But what I’ve learned is that, in order to have longevity and sustainability in this field, it had to be deeper than that. Special needs bring out the best and worst in all of us.”
Thur is proud of her and her colleagues’ success stories — kids who’ve gone on to get a diploma, those who’ve spoken their first words and learned to communicate more effectively, and even those who have hit teachers, but never hit again.
“Everything boils down to relationships,” she said. “I seem to have the ability to find beauty in every one of them, and as soon as that feel’s there, we can make it work. Sometimes it takes awhile. But we always get there.”
When she isn’t teaching, Dawn and her husband Paul are busy raising their daughter, Norah. Paul is the Greybull town administrator/finance director.
She believes having roots in Greybull has helped her as a teacher. She cultivates relationships she’s formed over the years to help students; for example, some of her students are currently learning job skills through arrangements at the Buff Ranch, CC’s and the thrift store.
Thur’s previous positions were in more urban settings, such as Denver. “This is the first time my own culture and upbringing has had relevance,” she said.
She also credits her predecessor Cathy Kunkel, “a dynamo of a teacher,” as well as aides Dean Waddell and Chris Morency, for the success of the Life Skills program. Since her arrival, her kids have run a coffee stand — the venture was known as “StarBuffs” — and now they make cookies and even lunch on Friday. What all of these activities have in common is that they bring special and general education students together.
“It’s so wonderful seeing my kids sitting at the table with their peers … the Hispanic kid sitting next to the kid whose parents hate Hispanics … the kid on the football team who, in spite of a tough loss last weekend, takes one of my students outside and they toss the football around when they finish their lunch early.
“Good things happen…and they happen on their own if you let them.”