By Gina Valencia
Photo by Monique Kuhlman
For years, Lucas Paterno struggled in school. Just before completing his middle school years, with the assistance of a school counselor, he was diagnosed with a learning disability. Unfortunately, due to district slowdowns, he didn’t receive the necessary help he needed until the start of his freshman year at Millikan High School. However, during initial meetings between school administration, Lucas’ mom, an education advocate, and a case worker, communication began to break down.
“The meeting went downhill very quickly,” recalls Lynnie Paterno, Lucas’ mom. “The case worker talked down to us, there were lots of tears. Debbie, as department head, was called in to help diffuse the situation.”
Debra [Debbie], a Millikan Special Education teacher, immediately made Lynnie feel welcomed and heard. “She was so loving and ready to jump in, asking ‘What can we do to help Lucas? This kid deserves more.’ After so many struggles, [it was a relief] getting somewhere.”
TEACHING IS NOT A JOB; IT’S A LIFESTYLE
Debra was involved in planning Lucas’ class schedule throughout high school, making sure he was a student in at least one of her classes every semester, even as her teacher’s aide for his elective. She was in communication with his other teachers, making sure he had the support he needed. And if he was having difficulty due to any circumstance, Lucas’ education plan included permission to head to Debra’s classroom to decompress in peace at any time.
“She truly cares about her students, and it shows,” said Lynnie, who nominated Debra as a Community Hero. “[Teachers] help raise our children. I don’t know if [we] would have survived [Lucas’] high school years without her.”
TEACH TO LOVE, LOVE TO TEACH
Growing up in the district, Debra was fortunate enough to have teachers that ‘showed her compassion and empathy,’ from her days at Naples Elementary School, all the way through her high school years at Wilson.
“I developed the love for teaching from the love I received from my former teachers,” Debra said. “And really understanding each and every student and connecting with them on a level outside of the classroom.”
Debra, who has been a Millikan teacher since 2000, strives to always find a solution even through challenges in understanding her students’ different learning styles, their likes, dislikes, and personalities. “My philosophy has always been every student, every period, every day!”
Her connection to students goes beyond the dismissal bell. When Lucas’ family lost a beloved family pet, Debra sent them all her condolences with a thoughtful card and book with a personal inscription.
“Debra takes an interest in her students’ lives,” Lynnie said. “When my father passed away, she reached out to me. She’d text too, not just check up on Lucas, but would also ask me, ‘How are you doing, mom?’ She stays involved, even outside the realm of her busy school schedule.” In fact, Debra keeps in touch with former students via social media.
Lucas, who graduated in 2021, found a cheerleader in his teacher. “She was the first person that cared,” he told his mom. “She made me feel like I can do something.”
“She taught Lucas a lot of coping mechanisms that he still uses now,” Lynnie said. “And made him realize, just because you have a bad day, it doesn’t have to ruin everything.” Through his academic and self-esteem trials, Debra always made Lucas believe that he could, ‘even when he failed, he could always get up and keep trying.’