Reading specialist dedicated to helping students thrive

·7 min read

Jun. 26—Suzie Shaffer realized her life's goal early on and went with it.

Since childhood, the Lake Ariel resident saw herself as a teacher and in particular wanted to work with children in special education.

"I could see that there were individuals that had special needs to be met, and I always gravitated really toward individuals with special needs," she said. "I loved the school setting. I always loved my teachers. I really loved everything about the school environment."

Shaffer grew up in Long Island but spent time in Northeast Pennsylvania, where her parents owned a home in Lake Ariel. She stayed in the area for college, earning a degree in elementary and special education from Marywood University. Shaffer became close to some of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at the university and ended up with teaching with nuns from the order in North Carolina for a year after graduating. Shaffer then moved on to a school in Delaware and another in Hancock, New York, on the NEPA border.

After five years of bouncing around the country, Shaffer found a home in Scranton School District, where she has worked for the last 26 years. She spent a year as an instructional support teacher at Robert Morris and John J. Audubon elementary schools and then switched to McNichols Educational Plaza, where she has stayed.

"When I got assigned here, it defined my career," Shaffer said. "This is the building for me."

Shaffer taught fifth grade but also aspired to become a reading specialist, and she loved McNichols so much she waited for the job to open there rather than switch to another district school. To prepare for the gig, she earned a master's degree in reading from Marywood in 2000, which she said "intensified and helped and clarified everything I was doing in the classroom."

"There's so much behind the science of reading and the process of learning to read, just from simply identifying letters to reading fluently and then understanding what you read. ... There's just always so much more to learn, and the master's program really broke it down into specific courses," she said.

Shaffer's patience paid off, and she has served as McNichols' reading specialist for more than a decade.

"It was a big transition. ... It helped a lot to know the building and the students," Shaffer said.

She now works with children in kindergarten through fourth grade, helping them learn to read in small, typically 40-minute classes each day. It falls under the Title 1 program, a federally funded effort that helps "local educational agencies to improve educational opportunities for educationally deprived children," according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Title 1 includes an emphasis on family engagement, Shaffer said.

"I've done a lot of work with families," she said. "We do a family picnic every year. ... Working on getting to know (students') families has made me a much better teacher."

And many students at the South Scranton school benefit from her help.

"There's a very high percentage below the poverty line at the Plaza, and we have students from all over the world, so the English language learners also struggle with language, which causes them to struggle with reading," Shaffer said. "And the pandemic also did a lot to delay learning. A lot of the students, when school shut down in March of 2020, just didn't have access to everything that they needed to continue."

That was a nationwide problem, Shaffer said, not just a Scranton one, and reading specialists like her continue to help students make up that learning loss. Returning to the classroom full-time this year "was just such a relief," she said.

"This year has given (students) the consistency they need," she said. "They're happy to be here. My schedule's tight. I work with seven groups a day across all grade levels, but they are happy. ... They want to learn. They are making progress, and they're thrilled when they do."

McNichols has become like a family to Shaffer, who enjoys seeing how happy the kids are to see her every day and how thrilled they become when they master a new skill, like learning a word they couldn't read the day before. And they love to learn, she added.

"They're so grateful," Shaffer said. "They're so open to trying new things. They don't know discrimination. ... They're enthusiastic about everything. They'll try anything you'll ask them to try."

Shaffer also understands their parents' perspectives, as she has two grown children of her own, Timothy, 25, and Emily, 23. She said she probably had really high expectations of her students before she became a mom, but being a parent "just helps you see the big picture better."

"The roles of mother and teacher cross; they're very intertwined for me," Shaffer said. "I think being a mother made me a better teacher. I think once you're a mother of school-aged children, you understand what children go through in the morning, getting ready for school. ... Sometimes the homework isn't done."

And that understanding went both ways. Shaffer's experience as a teacher helped her understand what teachers expected of her own kids and why an instructor might ask something of them.

Today, Shaffer and her husband have an empty nest, as her daughter graduated from Marywood and now is at Duquesne University to earn a doctorate in physical therapy. Her son attended Embry — Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, on an ROTC scholarship, learned to fly and graduated with a degree in aeronautics. He now works as an Air Force pilot in Destin, Florida.

"Honestly, it is something he's wanted since he was a toddler, so it was baby steps for us," Shaffer said. "It was him looking at programs like the (military) academies or ROTC programs. ...We have worked our way up to this literally for 20 years. Part of me will always be worried, but the pride always outweighs the fear."

Before the kids moved out on their own, though, the Shaffers, like many others, spent the pandemic together. During that time, her kids talked her into fostering a dog.

"I grew up afraid of dogs, and my son was like, 'We really need to do this. We're all home.' ... Within a week, we had a dog at the house, and she was the best dog," Shaffer said.

The pup came from Mississippi with a broken leg and heartworm, which left her frail and sick. Under their care, the dog healed and became like a member of the family, a light in the dark time of the pandemic, Shaffer noted.

"I think she helped us more than we helped her," she said.

Shaffer has now fostered several dogs, working with the nonprofit NEPA Pet Fund and Rescue. The first rescue dog the Shaffers took in became a trained therapy dog, and Shaffer hopes to bring it to McNichols, where students could practice their skills by reading to the pooch.

In addition to fostering more dogs, Shaffer plans to continue working as a private tutor and aspires to one day educate other teachers. Shaffer also wants to keep writing, as she's previously worked on stories that included a piece about melanoma awareness. She has fought the type of skin cancer skin cancer twice, first in 2015, when doctors had to surgically remove "quite a bit" from her arm, and again this past fall.

"I try to advocate for melanoma awareness," Shaffer said. "It's hard, though. It's not a cancer that you hear about often."

With years of experience in her tool box, Shaffer remains passionate about kids learning to read, and she hopes to eventually get involved with adult literacy efforts as well.

"It's really important," she said. "It's never too late to learn to read."

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