Special Kid, Special Teacher: Emily Dill

By: Beth Browne


If you followed the Pay-It-Forward Room Makeover Project that began in October 2011, you know that there were so many wonderful nominees who, while they didn’t win the Makeover, did win our hearts. Following is the nominating letter from Mrs. Laura Lee Jordan and a profile of Emily Dill.


It is my pleasure to nominate Mrs. Emily Dill for this Room Makeover. For the past 18 years Emily has taught children with special needs, in particular behavior disorders. These challenged children often have teachers who are mainly focused on behavior control, yet Emily focuses on teaching them self-control and meeting the same high educational standards as other children. Teaching regular middle school students is difficult enough; her career is twice as demanding. In order to meet her own high standards, she often spends hours at the school on weekends preparing individual lesson plans and ways to meet individual student goals.


Emily and her husband have also accepted a Foreign Exchange student to share their lives this year, and had 3 foreign students for a summer experience. That takes space in both one’s home as well as a great deal of nurturing.


Finally, Emily is a wonderful neighbor, and keeps a watchful eye on my 83-year-old mother when my husband and I travel.


Emily lives in a lovely home with a view of our magnificent mountains. A room makeover would brighten the space, enabling the family to enjoy the view and appreciate their family time even more.


This lady who has given so much to others, deserves this free Room Makeover!


Remember summer camp? Sing-a-longs by the campfire, pillow fights in the bunkhouse, making key chains with plastic lacing? Emily Dill does. In fact, Emily credits her experience at summer camp with much of her success in life. And Emily has succeeded at one of the most difficult jobs: Teaching students with special needs.


Emily grew up in Ohio and went to camp for the first time when she was eight. At YMCA Storer Camps in Michigan, she says, the staff made sure everybody counted and no one was left out. She says her experience at camp was magical. Spending so much time with people at camp formed relationships that have lasted her entire life. Emily will be forty-three in June and she and her husband often vacation with and are going on spring break with people they knew from camp twenty-five years ago. She even met her husband at camp. She says, “Camp was a big anchor in my life.”


At camp there was a lot of singing, both in chapel and around the campfires and Emily had always loved to sing. The counselors encouraged her to sing and her abilities blossomed. She learned how to play the guitar and eventually learned to lead others in singing. Today she volunteers to help organize musicals at her school, has worked in community theatre and sings in her church’s praise band. Emily says music is “a whole different language.”


When she got old enough, Emily became a camp counselor and worked her way up to directing the other counselors. She was studying journalism in college and spending her summers at camp, when one of the other counselors, Michele, mentioned her experience working with children with learning disabilities. She told Emily about the kids she was working with and how they had high IQ’s but just couldn’t learn the way everyone else did. Michele was so excited about getting inside the minds of these kids and figuring out a way to teach them. The excitement led her back to school with a new major in special education, focusing on learning disabilities.


After graduation, Emily was teaching in a high school in Michigan when she discovered she had a knack for working with kids who had emotional problems. The other teachers in the school started sending Emily any kids who had emotional or behavior problems. “I just seemed to work naturally with them,” she says.


Emily thinks two factors influenced her ability to work with this special population. One of them stems from her own mother being an alcoholic who got sober when Emily was in the eighth grade. The other was camp. Being at camp and living so closely with people in a supportive environment taught her how to accept and work with people and build relationships. “I learned that people are different and deal with things differently but they’re just people and there’s a reason they’re acting like they’re acting. I seem to be able to quickly form relationships with kids and they’ll talk to me and tell me things pretty easily. Really, it’s a gift from God.”


Faith is a huge part of Emily’s life that was also fostered in her camp experience where they went to chapel every day. She was raised going to church, but says it didn’t really “click” for her until later in life. As an adult, she went through a difficult three years in which she got married, got pregnant, lost her father and learned her mother and her mother-in-law had cancer. Her husband’s mother moved in with them and lived with them until she passed away when their daughter Acadia was just a year old. Emily’s mother passed away a year later. At the time the losses were devastating, but now Emily says, “I can honestly say that I’m grateful for the trials that we’ve been through, because I feel much stronger. I wouldn’t be who I am today, if I didn’t have to go through all that stuff.”


During this difficult time, Emily worked at an alternative school. One of her colleagues, Mont, asked Emily to join him at his church. But Emily’s mother had lead Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) meetings at that same church for years and now that her mother was gone, Emily couldn’t bear to go near the place that held so many memories of her mother. “I couldn’t bring myself to walk through those doors. I had been there listening to her speak and it was just too close to the time after she had died.” But Mont was insistent and kept asking her to join him and eventually Emily and her husband decided to go. When they got out of the car in the church parking lot, they could hear the music coming from inside. As she walked in the door, “it all melted away.” Five days later, the church caught on fire and they had to meet in a different building while the fire damage was repaired. Emily says, “That was no mistake,” because it enabled her to attend the church without hurting every time she walked in the door. Three weeks later she became a Christian, which she says totally changed her life. Emily and her husband were baptized at the same time and shortly thereafter Emily’s sister, Leslie, also came to Christ. Before this, they didn’t think there was any hope for Leslie because she was deeply into some serious drug use. But the transformation turned her life around.


At that time, Emily’s husband was a stay-at-home dad and after a few years of being out of the recreation field, he asked Emily out of the blue how she would feel about him starting to look for a camp job, which was his first love. Emily laughs and says she immediately agreed, fully knowing through their previous experiences that good camp jobs were hard to come by with decent family housing. But she knew in her heart that this would be a good move for the family.


Michael got a job at YMCA Camp Greenville (SC) and they moved to North Carolina. For two years, Emily home schooled Acadia for first and second grade until she eventually felt led to go back to work. She says working with kids and building relationships with them was where her heart was and at the same time she was coming to realize that their daughter was very social and would benefit from the school environment.


While Mike transitioned to working at Bonclarken Conference Center, Emily went back to working in the school system and now works at Rugby Middle School doing resource work and inclusion of kids with disabilities in the regular classroom. She’s found one of her strengths in working with kids in very small groups or even one-on-one. “I really believe that when I look back over my career and over my life, it’s when I was working with small groups, like at camp, where I know that I’ve made a difference in some kids’ lives. The smaller the group, the more I can reach them.”


In one of the first schools she worked in, she pioneered another one of her strengths and something she loves—inclusion—and she’s seen it evolve over the years. She says it’s a really great concept and when both teachers (the regular teacher and the exceptional-children teacher) are willing and want to learn from each other and have input it can be a great thing for both students with special needs and for the other students. She says it’s important for the teaching team to have time to plan and build their own relationship so they can better serve the kids. “When you put two minds together, you have so many more possibilities of how to teach and reach kids with many differing abilities.” Emily says she knows it might not be realistic, but she thinks it would be great if every class had two teachers because there are so many learning styles and it’s hard for just one teacher to reach every child.


The benefits of inclusion extend to every child in the classroom. Sometimes students might not relate to just one adult in the classroom. “I think relationships are the basis for education, and if there are two teachers in the room there’s a much greater chance that the child will be able to relate to one of them.” In addition, Emily says, “Inclusion gives kids a chance to know that there are other ways of doing things and that it’s ok to be different as long as you grow and you learn.” Emily Dill is out to make sure the kids in her classroom do just that.



Beth Browne writes because she just can’t help herself. Her two kids wish she liked cooking as much as writing. In her spare time she enjoys sailing with her salty mate, Eric, and blogging about it at: http://bbwomenswrites.blogspot.com.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker