For the last few years, some in the state legislature have threatened to eliminate thousands of teacher assistants from North Carolina’s public school classrooms.
The folks behind that idea haven’t met Sue Sims, say her coworkers.
“She is an angel, honestly. I simple could not do what I do without Sue,” said Michelle Kornfield, who teaches exceptional children at Merrick-Moore Elementary on Cheek Road.
“The children adore Ms. Sims, and they benefit hour after hour from her nurturing and her smarts.”
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Kornfield began wiping away tears less than one minute after speaking about her teacher assistant.
“Parents call Sue on the weekend to talk about their children,” Kornfield said. “She’s the one who stays in touch with them.”
Sims generates this kind of passion and praise by being one of the “best of the best,” said Durham Public Schools Superintendent Bert L’Homme.
And she was recently named DPS Employee of the Month, the first recipient in a reignited program to regularly honor remarkable school workers.
“People like our Employees of the Month have an impact that will be still be felt when our students have grown up and have children of their own,” L’Homme said.
In the classroom with the special-needs children, Sims is gentle and giving. She seems to feel the kids’ struggles and efforts and make them her own.
Her voice is soft as she taps students on the back just as softly to keep them focused on listening and learning. The room is designed and decorated as the teacher asks, thanks mostly to Sims. Actually, no one has to ask.
“Sue has things under control,” Kornfield said. “She is calm and so talented, and she’s always ahead of me.”
“Sue always has a purpose. It is instinctive,” said Kia Eason, Merrick-Moore principal. “When I see Sue Sims coming, I know she has an idea I should hear about.”
Sims, who’s been with DPS about seven years, drives nearly two hours a day three days a week to reach Merrick-Moore. She lives well north of South Boston, Virginia.
Two days a week, she stays over with her daughter, who lives in Durham.
“I spend $200 a month or more on gasoline,” Sims said. “And that’s when it’s cheap like it is now. But these are my babies. I was meant to do this work, and Merrick-Moore is where I was meant to be.”
Even being 100 miles or so away, “Ms. Sims doesn’t miss work,” Eason said. “It doesn’t matter if there’s bad weather.”
“Oh, I’ll be here,” Sims said.
The mother of three children and grandmother to three more often brings food and clothing in to students who need it. And every spring, Sims buys a graduating outfit for each exceptional child who graduates fifth grade.
“I tell families not to worry,” Sims said. “I ask them to get the shoes, and I’ll do the rest.”
A few weeks ago, there was an unexpected knock on a classroom door at Merrick-Moore. Teacher Kornfield motioned the small group in, with no idea why the people were there, though she recognized some of the faces.
Sims kept the students still during an awkward silence. Then someone produced a beautiful fruit bouquet donated by Edible Arrangements-Sutton Station. There was a certificate, too.
Everyone was looking at Sims.
“What did I do?” Sims asked nervously.
She was told: Ms. Sims, you are being recognized as the DPS employee of the month. The first such selection in years.
Kornfield started crying. The kids started smiling. Sims started beaming. The clapping went on and on.
Sims was chosen from among 80 nominees.
I tell families not to worry. I ask them to get the shoes, and I’ll do the rest.
Sue Sims, teacher assistant
“We are so proud of our employees and their contributions,” said Chrissy Deal, the DPS chief communications officer. “Bringing this award back has really gotten people enthused.”
When Sims sees it’s time for a school day to end, she knows what will come next. Hugs. There are always hugs from “her” kids.
She walks hand in hand with several of them down the hall, up the stairs and out the Merrick-Moore front door before saying goodbye. On a recent afternoon, one child simply would not leave Sims’ side.
“Breaks my heart,” Sims said. “I just embrace them.”
And Merrick-Moore Elementary, as well as DPS, embraces Sims.
Principal Eason hopes all the talk from Raleigh about removing teacher assistants from North Carolina’s classrooms will cease. These educators carry out many of the nuts and bolts of teaching, and their compensation is humble. The investment, however, yields high returns.
“You see what Sue Sims means to these children,” Eason said.