Health director receives award for decades of work
Shrewsbury – In a perfect world, teenagers wouldn't have to worry about unplanned pregnancy, pressure from their classmates to drink or use drugs, or emotional or physical abuse by their parents or partners. Every child would come from a stable home, with a strong support system and someone to guide them through the struggles they'll face as young adults.
In a perfect world, these students wouldn't need Patricia Degon as much as they do.
Because the world isn't perfect, Degon, Shrewsbury's health and physical education director, has spent nearly three decades answering students' most difficult and personal questions in a manner that has garnered her national acclaim.
"We are very diff erent in the way we reach out to kids than a math or science teacher, in that we are really intending to hit kids in a personal way," Degon said. "We talk about what's going on in our hearts and our heads, and they come to us to talk about things that they see as just everything in their world at that moment."
Unlike in a core class, there is really no way for Degon to know if her lessons are hitting home with her students. While students take exams in other subjects to test their knowledge, the true test for Degon's students comes on Saturday night when someone hands them a beer, when they decide whether or not they're going to buckle their seatbelts, or when they stand up for themselves against someone who is mistreating them.
"We suspect that we're making that impact, but we can't see it, and that can be frustrating," Degon said. "But every once in a while you'll get a simple little note either signed or anonymous that comes from a student thanking you for providing them with unknown support and resources they needed at a particular time in their lives and that's when you know that you're making a diff erence."
Degon's curriculum relies less on textbook lessons and more on exposing students to real-life situations others have faced, like the "Yellow Dress" dating violence performance.
She also shares some of her own experiences during class discussions, which she said are often more educational than the day's lesson plan.
"A single question asked by a student can be so valuable and important that it can derail the entire class, but a good teacher knows to stop and answer that question that may have been so hard for that student to ask and others may have wanted to ask," she said. "If I choose to share from my life and they choose to share from theirs, it just makes our class very much closer."
Using these real-life situations has helped Degon capture not only the attention but also the respect of her students.
"Real-life experiences are very valuable in good teaching, and if something isn't real they'll see through it real fast," she said. "I can't go in there as an adult and tell them to 'just say no' because I'd be wasting their time and mine."
Her dedication to her students and the field have also gained the respect of her peers, who have awarded Degon with the 2008 MAHPERD Honor Award, one of several awards she has received for her work.
She has also been invited to serve on several boards, to help to rewrite state health standards and work directly on developing the Michigan Model for Health program.
While she is honored by the awards bestowed on her, Degon said the real reward is giving children the lessons and the support they'll take with them for their entire lives.
"I teach children not only for their own health and safety but also to prepare them to be parents and raise safe and healthy children," she said.
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