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Everyday Hero: Jennifer Cody

Harvard High School teacher approaches special education with passion

Jennifer Cody, a Harvard High School teacher, developed a program to teach essential life skills such as cooking and cleaning the dishes to kids suffering from autism, Down syndrome and other disabilities.
Jennifer Cody, a Harvard High School teacher, developed a program to teach essential life skills such as cooking and cleaning the dishes to kids suffering from autism, Down syndrome and other disabilities.

Jennifer Cody recalled her brother’s teachers when asked why she feels passionate about her job as a special education teacher at Harvard High School.

The teachers never seemed to understand her brother’s special needs, blaming behavioral issues and suggesting the need for medication, she said.

Cody also recalled her work as a counselor at a summer camp geared toward kids with special needs. A day after receiving a concussion from a child at the camp, she told her colleagues that she wasn’t going to give up on the kid just because he had a bad day.

“A lot of times, these kids just don’t get the opportunity to reach their potential,” Cody said. “Growing up, I’ve been taught that everyone should be treated equally. Just because they look or sound different doesn’t mean you treat them differently. It’s been instilled in me.”

The ingrained quality is evident throughout Cody’s work, Harvard High School Principal Rob Zielinski wrote in nominating the special education teacher as an Everyday Hero.

For the past four years, Cody has taught essential life skills such as cooking and cleaning the dishes to kids suffering from autism, Down syndrome and other disabilities. She’s worked with the Harvard students on their academics and study habits.

The special education life skill class, in fact, was created because of her dedication to the job, Zielinski wrote. Cody took the lead and organized the class to better serve special education students who would’ve transferred out of District 50 upon high school.

Harvard High School didn’t have a life skills class for its special education students. The program is now in its third year.

“Jen doesn’t see problems. She sees opportunities,” Zielinski wrote. “She takes on difficulties and finds ways to get the job done and get it done right.”

Cody also encounters difficulties outside of work – a fact that has added to her crowded schedule.

Cody enrolled at George Williams College of Aurora University last winter for a master’s degree in social work. She pursued the advanced degree because she was fascinated by the social and emotional needs of her students, she said.

Many of her students come from single-parent, low-income families. Many of them are on free and reduced lunch at school. Before class, she hears often how her students’ home life affects their school life.

The learning dynamics led her to social work. Since July, Cody has interned at the Pioneer Center for Human Services, working with 14- to 18-year-old teenagers who are court ordered to meet with her.

Working with unwilling participants, Cody has to talk with the kids about their decision-making that caused them to commit a crime as part of a program meant to help improve their behavior in the future.

“It’s challenged me in a different way because you have to talk about things outside of the classroom,” she said. “You have to build that trust because a lot of them come in and say, ‘Why do I have to tell you my story? ... It’s between me, the judge and my probation officer.’”

Her colleagues at Pioneer also have observed how Cody’s friendly, nonthreatening approach allows her to connect easily with the kids in the program, Zielinski wrote in his nomination.

Despite the title behind the Everyday Hero nomination, Cody said she doesn’t think of herself as a hero, calling it a strong word reserved for people who go above and beyond to help others.

Cody was even tongue tied when Zielinski and her colleagues at Harvard High School congratulated for being nominated.

“I have a very hard time taking compliments because in my mind, doing the right thing is what you are supposed to do,” she said.

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