Special needs teacher has a servant’s heart

NORTH CHARLESTON—Courtney Leonard exudes an air of calm in the class­room.

Standing among a dozen young charges, the special-needs teacher at St. John in North Charleston handles a constant flurry of questions, comments and requests in a man­ner that is firm, yet caring at the same time.

One young boy asks for spelling help, two others need math work looked over, a fourth sits sadly at her desk pondering her task, and a fifth charismatic kid just wants to talk.

Leonard takes time for each one, encouraging them and sending them off to find the answer; or to a reward station if they are finished with work.

Meghan West, a parent at the school, refers to her as “a living saint”.

“Courtney Leonard is a special-needs teacher who is gifted with a servant’s heart,” West said. “She is a woman who wears many hats. Because of her love for the students, she has acquired additional certi­fications that help them [such as stretching and exercise classes]. Also, she is a beekeeper and has been instrumental in having an edu­cational Bee Cause Hive installed at the school.”

This year, Leonard added another hat to her repertoire.

Not only did she switch to teach­ing a younger grade level, she also introduced the Montessori style of learning to her second- and third-grade pupils, with the help of Belinda Dymek, who is certified in the ap­proach. Montessori is based on self-directed, hands-on learning and collaborative play.

“The Montessori philosophy is great for these kids,” Leonard said, smiling at each of them as they worked on individual tasks, earning a reward at the end.

Leonard gathers on the playground at St. John School with some of her students.

Leonard is a product of Catholic education herself, having attended St. Anthony in Florence. She ma­jored in special education at the Col­lege of Charleston, and was trying to figure out a way to translate her degree into a meaningful direction when providence placed her in the small North Charleston school that specializes in children with special needs.

The young teacher has been at St. John for five years now, and said she is constantly amazed at her blessings.

“I get to work in a Cath­olic school and use my special education back­ground, which is pretty awesome,” she said.

Leonard is working toward earning her own Montessori certification, adding it to a number of other gifts she brings the school, including morning stretch classes to instill calm in the students, and afternoon walks to the riverfront for exercise.

Karen Durand, prin­cipal, Jeannette Dan­gerfield in the front office, and her fellow teachers all speak highly of Leonard.

“She’s the most beautiful person inside and out,” said Lee Bertiger, who teaches fourth and fifth grades. “She makes my heart proud.”

A recent graduate described Leon­ard as “the coolest teacher I’ve ever met.” High marks indeed from the teen crowd.

Top photo, provided: Courtney Leonard works with her students recently at St. John School in North Charleston.