Amherst teacher with learning disability helps students overcome their own challenges

AMHERST – Bridgette Doucette-Howell, a teacher at the Regional Services and Education Center in Amherst, is one of eight finalists for the New Hampshire Department of Education’s 2016 Teacher of the Year award.

Doucette-Howell, who is originally from Newton, teaches history and social studies to students with special needs, and can personally relate to their challenges because she overcame a learning disability herself.

“When I was in eighth grade, I was told that I would never graduate from high school because I was too stupid,” said Doucette-Howell, who went on to graduate in the top 12 percent of her class.

“That only helped me by solidifying my determination to overcome my own disability – I have a hard time putting combinations of letters together – and understand that it is possible. And if people tell you it’s not, it’s because they just can’t see it.”

RSEC, a network of three schools, provides educational and special-needs-focused programs and services to school districts in southern New Hampshire.

Doucette-Howell has taught at RSEC for three years, joining after she launched a series of individualized after-school programs and starting the Springboard After School program in Massachusetts.

She began her college career expecting to major in theater – a family tradition – but after working as a teaching assistant and discovering that performing wasn’t for her, she added secondary education to her studies, earning a Bachelor of Arts in theater with an emphasis in musical theater and secondary education.

After working at Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth teaching and choreographing student productions, she attended the University of New Hampshire and earned a graduate degree in education.

“I am living proof that anyone can do anything they want; they just need to work hard,” Doucette-Howell said. “If you give students the opportunity to relate education to their own experience and the real world, the impossible becomes possible.”

That philosophy carries into her social studies class, where she strives to bring the past alive by inviting individuals with unique historical perspectives to talk about what students are reading in class.

For example, when learning about Veterans Day, Doucette-Howell’s students heard from individuals ranging from combat veterans to retired military social workers.

“I like to make history as realistic as possible,” she said. “All of a sudden, students can put the content and philosophy into their own perspective and relate to their own experiences, making learning that much more enjoyable and memorable.”

In addition to her social studies curriculum,
Doucette-Howell spearheaded a schoolwide, yearlong art project involving theater, visual arts, music, dance and slam poetry. The program was her solution to providing arts programming in a school without a formal art teacher.

“Bridgette has an incredible amount of creativity, professionalism and ability to organize,” said Judy Koch, RSEC’s executive director. “Not only does that benefit her students, but she also helps parents who don’t understand their child’s potential by resetting their expectations and refusing to let them lower their standards because of their child’s learning disability or special need.”

After a round of site visits in June, the finalist field is narrowed to five. The remaining nominees present a local education issue to state legislators in Concord and submit a series of essays. The winner will be announced in October.

“The self-reflection component has made me re-evaluate my own teaching practices, which is important because times change and you need to be able to change with them,” Doucette-Howell said. “It is also great because there are so many excellent teachers in the state, and this highlights many of them.”

For information about RSEC, visit rsec.org. For information about the Teacher of the Year program, visit education.nh.gov.