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Love for the underdog: Teacher makes room in life for others

COLUMBUS — Slabs of wood meant for a wheelchair ramp leaned against the walls Monday (Sept. 2) just outside Karen Sisk’s house, where 22 people and four dogs just celebrated Labor Day weekend.

Joshua, an 11-year-old boy she homeschools, had surgery on Aug. 23 and is temporarily in a wheelchair, she said. He was “probably the brightest child” in Sisk’s first-grade class at Starkville Academy four years ago. A car accident took the lives of his father and one of his siblings and left Joshua with a traumatic brain injury.

His teacher left the Academy at the end of the 2015-16 year to homeschool him, and now she sees him every day.

“I walked away from the classroom because I felt like God led me to help Joshua,” Sisk said.

She devotes her life to helping people both personally and professionally. In addition to tutoring Joshua and other children with special needs, she is the caretaker for her husband, Glen, who had a stroke 15 years ago; and her elderly parents who live next door.

Before her three years at Starkville Academy, Sisk taught in the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District for five years and previously in a variety of districts in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. She and Glen relocated from Grenada to Starkville so she could care for her parents.

“I needed everybody I needed to take care of, now and in the future, all in one place,” Sisk said with a laugh.

She has 39 years of teaching experience and a degree in elementary education from Mississippi State University. There were no degrees in special education when she graduated in 1973, but there were special education courses, and she took as many as she could.

“From the very beginning of my career, (my passion has) always been children that struggle to succeed,” she said. “I went into the teaching field and stayed in it because I love seeing the light come on. I love being able to share knowledge and help them own the knowledge and learn to work with others, learn to accomplish things. I’ve always had a passion for the underdog.”

Many of the students Sisk tutors have dyslexia. She was teaching in Charleston, Mississippi in the 1990s when she was required to receive training to teach children with dyslexia, she said. Hands-on approaches work well for them, and she was taught to make words kinesthetic, such as focusing on the mouth movement of each sound, she said. She applied the training to all her students, not just the ones with dyslexia, and they loved it.

Sisk developed a reputation as the teacher who was experienced with special-needs kids.

“Usually if (the school) had a child with special needs, they ended up in my classroom because they knew I’d love on them,” she said. “The principals all knew that’s where my heart lay.”

Children with special needs were not included in mainstream classroom settings when Sisk first began teaching, and the education system has come a long way since, she said.

She started a program for students with dyslexia in Grenada, where she also taught second grade, and she had to take a semester off when Glen had the stroke.

“My colleagues made up my days for me so that we didn’t miss a paycheck,” she said. “People are good. They come through when you need them to.”

She started going to Joshua’s house every day after school as soon as he came home from the hospital, about four months after the car accident. He started re-learning his colors and numbers, and he is now about halfway through third grade, Sisk said.

“That is not to my credit. That is to God’s credit, because only God can heal the brain” Sisk said. “I’m just the facilitator, but I love that God’s bringing him back.”

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