by Charles McGuigan
Amy Buckhouse Harr was born, it seems, to become a teacher. It was not something she particularly wanted to do; it was something she had to do. It was almost as if she were genetically engineered to become a teacher. Her mother Dora Moore taught her entire professional career in school districts in California, Utah and in Oregon, where Amy grew up. Her father, John Buckhouse, was also a teacher—a professor at Oregon State, a land-grant college. His specialty was range land resources. And a generation before that, Amy’s grandfather was principal at an elementary school. So this desire to help shape young minds runs deep through her veins.
We’re sitting in low chairs before a low table in the media center at Linwood Holton Elementary School. Principal David Hudson spent an hour with me singing this woman’s praises. In his own words, “She is extraordinary. She has no limits.”
Amy has reddish-blond hair and a vast, substantial smile, and she laughs freely and regularly, as frequently as most people breathe. There’s nothing feigned about it either; it’s genuine. She may well be the most positive person I’ve ever met in my life.
Amy grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, nestled in the Willamette Valley, just south of Portland. It was an idyllic place to spend her youth, surrounded by all the beauty and wonder of the natural world, which she freely explored. And being a college town attitudes there were progressive and liberal, a perfect place to engender curiosity and critical thinking.
“Every conflict could be solved over a cup of coffee,” Amy says. “And people loved to hear other people’s stories. People would say, ‘You think differently than me, tell me more about that,’ rather than being at odds and trying to fight. It was very much a town of children of college professors.”
And in Corvallis public education was perhaps the most valued of all government services. “Learning had such a premium in my hometown that we would constantly pass tax increases so we could spend more on education,” says Amy. “I had an incredible experience as a student, and I went to public school all the way through.”
And Oregonians have a deep belief in the value of an individual’s contribution and his or her intrinsic value, perhaps a remnant of the pioneer spirit. “The culture where I was brought up is that people really think that one person makes a difference,” Amy tells me. “So, of course, you’re going to recycle, and, of course, you’re going to compost. It’s not, ‘But I’m just one little drop in the ocean.’ Instead, it’s, ‘My drop counts.’ And so there’s something about being raised in a place where you are inspired that every little thing that you do ripples through the world and makes a big difference, and that you’re connected to this great big picture that empowers you to then act with purpose in the choices that you make.”
She remembers how her father worked with three disparate factions who ultimately all had the same goal. “He worked really closely as the science voice to bring together the cattlemen and the Bureau of Land Management and the environmentalists,” Amy says. “And those are three groups that love and care about our ecosystems because they all value them in very different ways, so my father would come in and he would help with the diplomacy using science as the medium to be able to get everybody to say, ‘Look, we actually have more in common than we have differences, so let’s work together.’”
She applies this same kind of diplomacy in her career as a teacher. “I can see this playing into how I live my life and it relates directly to my teaching,” says Amy. “We have so many stakeholders in education. So instead of looking at all the differences, and being pulled in so many different directions, there really is a way for us to all look at being stakeholders. We all have a gift here, and we should work together and collaborate and say, ‘Here’s our knowledge.’ Let’s honor that knowledge, and move forward with that.”
As Amy was preparing to graduate high school, moving forward in her own life, her parents were certain that she would walk in their academic footsteps. “They told me I was born to be a teacher, that I had every quality of a teacher, but I wasn’t planning to be a teacher,” Amy says. “I wanted to find my own way.” So the following fall she attended University of Oregon, ultimately earning a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric.
Her first job out of college was in supportive employment. “I worked with adults with disabilities, and helped them launch their careers,” says Amy. For five years she served as regional manager for Hired Hands and Associates in Oregon, and then in Virginia.
And what brought her to Virginia was a son of Richmond who, as a young man, was discovering the wonders of the Pacific Northwest. Amy had just returned from Europe as part of a senior year exchange program in Avignon, France. “I was hanging out with my best friend from high school in Corvallis and she started playing matchmaker,” Amy says. “That’s how I met Bob Harr. He fell in love with Oregon, and then he fell in love with me.”
A year after they met, the pair came to Richmond and settled in a Northside carriage house owned by Bob’s mom. They were later married, and bought their own home in Bellevue, then, in short order, began a family. Ultimately, they would have three children—Camille, Augie, and Rosalie—all of whom would attend Holton.
Their eldest, Camille, was born in 1999, and Amy became a stay-at-home mom. And this agreed with her, but then the subtle and not-so-subtle nudges began that told Amy she needed to be a teacher because that was her calling. Her children attended the pre-school program at St. Thomas, and June Hardy Dorsey, who headed it up program there and now serves as an assistant rector at the church, gave Amy what would become one of many gentle prods that eventually lead Amy to her vocation.
Amy remembers June approaching her one day and telling her about an opening for a youth minister at the church for middle and high schoolers. “I think this would be great for you,” June said. “Just think about it.”
So she thought about it. An inner voice said, “You know what, that might actually be amazing,” and so she took the position and began to understand that this was a nudge, a Divine one, perhaps. Who knows? But she would continue to receive these gentle pushes by unseen hands for years to come.
“In the house I grew up in there was always creativity there was also always the lesson,” Amy tells me, and she’s talking very fast now. “We didn’t do anything without identifying what the lesson learned was. So it might be an experience. Or, it could be a curiosity that we had to use our encyclopedias to understand. Whether it was a joyful experience or a miserable experience, whether it was a success or a failure, there was always this reflective moment that we practiced in my family where we talked about what we might have done differently. The highs and lows of those experiences. Or even that curiosity piece, you know, looking at nature and having questions or hearing some new information and how do we synthesize that into what we already know and how does it change our perspective.”
And this inquisitive environment enlightened Amy in her deepest core. “I’ve been very in tune with listening for the lessons and the guidance that I see in my everyday life,” she says. “That plays directly into my faith. My faith guides me in that way. My prayers are often gratitude prayers, and guidance prayers.”
One of those nudges—more like a fairly forceful push, really—came while Amy’s first-born, Camille, was attending Holton Elementary. “She had a diagnosis of dyslexia, and was reading on a pre-primer level in the third grade,” says Amy. “And with that diagnosis we had a special education teacher who was certified in the Wilson Reading System, which was based off the Orton-Gillingham, which was the original approach for teaching dyslexics to read.” Using this method, Camille, within a year’s time, was reading on a second grade level. That was up from pre-primer in just nine months.
“I was so astounded by that process, wanting to help my child, not knowing how the brain worked for a child who struggles to read, and then doing all kinds of research to learn what it was she needed and then seeing it here in play at Holton,” Amy says.
Her synapses began firing like black powder charges. “I started thinking, ‘We can do even better,’” says Amy. “There were talented teachers working with our daughter and she’s a smart, intelligent girl. She has parents who were super involved in doing the research and empowering her and she was still in third grade before she learned to read. So let’s find a way to do this intervention earlier, before a child fails, let’s try to come up with a way to catch them before they fall.”
Amy wasted no time. Almost immediately she became certified in the Wilson Reading System. She knew she’d need this arsenal of special tools later. That’s when Nicki Peasley, who was running the Howard Street program at Fox, told Amy there was an opening there for a reading tutor.
“And so I wrote a proposal and their PTA approved it,” says Amy. “We were able to go in and provide the reading instruction to their kindergarten through second grade children.”
After her first year at Fox, Amy would often take long walks with her friend Nicki through Ginter Park and Bellevue. And as they moved along the sidewalks, they talked, and their words were inspired.
“So Nicki would reflect back to me—as she would call it—my enthusiasm and my light and my vision, and it was one of those effervescent things,” Amy says, smiling broadly and unable to contain laughter. “Together we were unstoppable. We would change the world. And she helped me write a bigger proposal where I could touch more students’ lives. I think it was about seventy students a year that were in my reading intervention program that I coordinated at Fox.”
Holton and Mary Mumford also wanted the program Amy had developed. Because the results were frankly amazing. On the average children were rising two grade levels with every year of instruction, which was double what would ordinarily occur.
“I had just found my calling in the world,” says Amy. “I was meant to be a teacher.”
She pursued her master’s degree in special education at VCU, with David Hudson, principal at Holton, cheerleading her on, nudging her along.
Long before Amy went to work at Holton, she had a long relationship with the school. “I was very involved with the PTA even before my daughter started there,” she says. “I had a place on the board that first year, and then that next year I took on the After School Enrichment Program. It had been a really small program with a lottery drawing and I wanted to expand it so every child who wanted to could participate.”
And that’s exactly what she did. In the early years were just a handful of enrichment programs at Holton; today there are more than one hundred. Amy coordinated those programs for about five years.
Things accelerated. While she was working on her master’s, with her three children in three different schools, her husband Bob opened his enormously successful dinner truck, Ginter Parked, permanently located in the parking lot at Once Upon A Vine on MacArthur Avenue in Bellevue, and known city wide for its extraordinary food and an ever-changing menu. “Life was really busy, and a bit overwhelming that first year,” Amy says.
Even before she received her master’s, David Hudson came a-calling. “He gave me a call a year before and said he had an opening,” says Amy. “And he has since shared this numerous times with folks that I’m the only teacher he’s ever called and said, ‘I want you here. And, of course, when he called me I was jumping up and down. I‘m like yes, this is so exciting, bring me home. Now I loved Fox and the people there, but Holton is home. And it was super exciting to be offered a special education position there, to be in that place with Mr. Hudson’s leadership.”
For a few moments, Amy pauses, and then she lays her hands palms-down on the table. “My teaching philosophy is really looking at every student and realizing that each one of them has a beautiful gift to offer and incredible strengths,” she says.
While working toward her master’s an administrator from Henrico County addressed a class Amy was taking. And that administrator had this to say: “The number one reason that students drop out is because they don’t cares.”
As Amy tells me this she swallows a sob. “I thought I can do something about that because I care,” she says. “And if all a kid needs is that somebody cares, then I might be able to change the world because I can do that.”
But the kids have to know that the teacher really means it; they can read through b******t better than an adult. “They need evidence,” says Amy. “And so I light up when I see my students, it’s a natural thing. Just like you were saying earlier, I smile a lot. And it comes to me naturally. It comes to me naturally that when I see my students I see the Divine being within them, you might say. And it feeds me,”
And having her daughter Camille has also helped Amy in her approach to teaching. “Having this beautiful perspective of being a parent of a child with a disability informs the way that I teach children who have barriers to overcome, and we all have something that we have to overcome,” she says. “And if you have a child who’s made every effort like my child did—she tried so hard, she worked so hard—and she would still fail and she still couldn’t read. And it wasn’t until she discovered she learned differently and that she needed to approach her learning differently that she started having success. She is going to the University of Mary Washington this fall, and she’s earned awards and merit scholarships and lots of accolades.”
Amy shares with me another secret of her success as a teacher. “I really know my students,” she says. “And so I create a learning environment where they can recognize more about how they learn, who they are, what their strengths are.”
She describes her classroom, and all of Holton for that matter, as a community of empathy. And in her classroom there is but one rule: Be kind.
Amy remembers one of her students who was just ten-years old at the time. He’d already given up on himself. He would become frustrated, then angry, and then the outbursts would come. One day he said to Amy, “Mrs. Harr I’m just not a good person.”
To which Amy, addressing the boy by his name, said, “That’s not who I see.”
“And then I was very specific in showing him the moments I had seen that he was kind and how he had handled frustration with grace,” says Amy . “‘Remember that strategy where you took that deep breath and then you let go of that frustration and you tried again? That’s resilience. And here’s evidence of what a good person you are for learning how to manage those things so that they don’t become destructive to you.’ And I saw him light up and it was amazing to him that he didn’t have to be a bad kid. And all I was doing was reflecting back to him what I saw in him.”
Amy considers her colleagues at Holton, each one of them as passionate about teaching as herself. So much of it is about the way the teachers themselves view their charges. “It’s not, ‘This kid will never get this. This kid isn’t doing this. This kid’s driving me crazy,’” she says. “That’s the wrong attitude for a teacher. It should be, ‘I haven’t found a way yet to support this child or reach this child. I have not yet figured out what makes them tick and what motivates them.’”
When I mention the immense national tragedy of the current secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, Amy sighs, and exhales slowly. ”DeVos was so ignorant on what education is all about,” she says. “She didn’t understand anything about the debate over proficiency and growth.”
And then she tells me about the grim day after the presidential election, how it affected students at Holton. “We had a lot of children who were literally in tears,” Amy recalls. “I had one child who started having a little panic attack. Ten-year old children and they feel the weight and the fear after the election, and we had some really sincere conversations about it.”
The kids were naturally responding to a man who mocked the disabled, belittled women, attacked an entire religion, and sewed hatred, ignorance, and division everywhere he went.
“Do you know that here we see you for who you are, and we value you for who you are?” Amy asked these understandably frightened children.
And to me Amy Harr says words that are just as reassuring and hopeful: “So to combat that fear we use love. When I look at so many of the wrong things that are happening, I think, ‘So, what can I do about it?’ You know obviously there are some things I can do along the lines of communicating with my representatives and attending rallies and meetings, but I think where even more of my power to make a change comes from is using my gift. And I think my gift is in recognizing the strengths in others and helping them see it by reflecting it back to them. By being the best teacher I can be.”