Golden Apple Spotlight: Leigh-Ann Russell

Job: She’s a special educator and a case manager at Corvallis High School.
Family: Husband, Kevin Russell. Children, Sophia, a student at Cal Poly University, and Oliver, a student at Corvallis High School.
When she gets some time off: “Well, the first thing I always like to do is head to the East Coast. My parents live in New Hampshire. … I like taking pictures of flowers. I like being out in nature. I like organizing my world at home so that it runs smoothly. … I read books that I don’t read during the school year because I’m reading novels that students are reading.”
From her Golden Apple nomination: “Leigh-Ann continually goes above and beyond when it comes to solving the mystery of individual student needs. She gets to know students on a personal level and uses their strengths to maximize positive outcomes. Leigh-Ann is not afraid to take on our most complex students, and she approaches them with compassion, tenacity, and curiosity.”
Among Leigh-Ann Russell’s favorite events, each school year is the basketball games featuring Corvallis High School’s Unified basketball team, which includes athletes with intellectual and developmental disabilities and a handful of their classmates.
These games – held during school assemblies – usually draw good attendance. But a recent game at the school seemed to draw even more attendees than usual, and Russell couldn’t quite put her finger on the reason why. Was it because the Unified game had been mentioned at a recent meeting of the Corvallis School Board? The stands did appear to be filled with an unusually large number of people from the district office.
As it turned out, at least some of those people were there for the halftime show.
At halftime, as Russell recalled, she was planning to head into the stands to talk with some students she had noticed sitting way up there. But then school district officials started a presentation for the Golden Apple Award. Each year, the awards – sponsored by the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation – honor outstanding district teachers and staff members.
Typically, award winners are lured by some ruse into a room at the school where a winner works, while students, teachers, staff members, and administrators await the awards presentation. In this case, though, Superintendent Ryan Noss started by reading attributes of this particular Golden Apple winner, without initially revealing the winner’s identity.
As Russell sat there listening to the superintendent describe the as-yet-unidentified winner – who was, of course, Russell – this is what she was thinking:
“Oh, that would be something I wish someone would say about me. I was like, ‘Wow, who is this?’ It’s such a compliment.”
That tells you something about Russell.
But another detail in that story tells you something else about Russell: the fact that her first instinct during halftime was to hike up to where those students were sitting by themselves. Just to talk. Just to make a connection.
That desire to make connections is a recurring theme in Russell’s career.
And if she gets a choice between making a fresh connection with a student or tackling her paperwork, the paperwork will just have to wait.
Connections and passions
Russell, who teaches special education at Corvallis High, knew early on that she wanted to be a teacher.
When she was in high school in New Hampshire, she became friends with someone who had to leave public school because he was dyslexic. She also became close with many of his friends.
Even though reading had come easily for Russell, she became fascinated with the process of how her new friends had been able to accommodate their struggles with words.
“And I thought, ‘I think I want to teach reading’” — and that, in due time, led to teaching special education.
Her first teaching job was in Providence, Rhode Island, at the Met School — the Metropolitan Regional Center and Technical Center, which combines an individualized learning plan for each student along with rigorous learning goals. That first job was a crucial learning experience for Russell, who taught special education there.
“No traditional classes in the school,” she said of the Met. “Every student had a mentor in the community. And they learned through their passions. That work really influenced me.”
The idea of connecting students with their passions also has become a passion for Russell.
“What I love about the high school level is, we can have conversations about real-life paths and career paths and work paths,” she said. “I don’t think everybody needs to go to a four-year college. Just, what are your passions? What are your interests? How do you organize your time? I just love those kinds of real conversations.”
Russell says she’s blessed at Corvallis High School to have strong support from the school’s administrators and relishes opportunities to work with other teachers. She often gets the chance to co-teach classes with other teachers – and continues to be amazed by the way in which general education teachers work in classrooms with 30 or more students. “Honestly, I work with amazing people,” she said. “I really do.” She also treasures the relationships she’s able to make build families and guardians.
But the students – and the connections she creates with them – provide a constant source of inspiration.
“I learn from students all the time,” Russell said. “It’s true.”
“Students think differently,” she said, and that’s a good thing. For starters, those thoughts can be a starting point for a conversation: “What makes you say that?” or “I hadn’t thought about it that way.”
And every conversation offers a chance to make a fresh connection.
“There are some times,” she said, “when I can’t believe I get paid to do this.”