You would never know that a tragedy led Annie Hoffman to become a special education teacher’s assistant. Nearly a decade ago, Hoffman had been working in retail when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Wanting to care for her mom while also raising a young son who had special needs, Hoffman began looking for a job with more accommodating hours. She found a part-time position as a “noon monitor” – an aide who watches over students during lunch hour –at a local school.
That job allowed Hoffman, a member of Local 160 (OAPSE), to take care of her mother in what proved to be her final years. It also became an unexpected outlet for her to channel her enthusiasm, playfulness and, in Hoffman’s own words, “goofiness,” to the students with whom she works and colleagues who delight in working with her.
“She has a glow to her,” says Barb Batista, a door monitor at Pleasantview First Step Preschool in Parma, Ohio, where Hoffman works. Batista nominated Hoffman for a Never Quit Service Award. “She brightens up a room whenever she enters it. She has a great attitude and demeaner that’s contagious. She is so likeable – everyone loves her.”
Hoffman moved steadily from noon monitor to a brief stint as a cafeteria monitor to special education assistant at Pleasantview. Some of the preschoolers that Hoffman and Batista work with may be on the autism spectrum or have other physical or developmental disabilities, but no matter who the child is, Hoffman shares the same warmth and energy with every child.
“She’ll walk past me since I’m the door monitor and she’s always singing and dancing and laughing. She makes the kids smile, but she also makes me smile,” says Batista. “You can totally tell that she was made for this position. She’s a natural with the students.”
Though Hoffman hadn’t planned on a career in education, she says, “This is where my heart is. I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
While Hoffman’s approach might seem all fun and games, she’s serious about the attention and care her students receive.
“Every kid has a story. I might be the first face they see in the morning that’s smiling at them,” Hoffman says. “I make sure to meet them at their level. I want to be fun and funny, and even if I only get eye contact from a kid at the beginning of the year, by the end of the year, I’m going to make sure that kid’s smiling. It’s a high.”
Working in special education carries an extra level of meaning for Hoffman. Her son also attended Pleasantview preschool years ago. Adopted from Russia, where he’d spent his first year in an orphanage, his speech was delayed (he didn’t end up talking until he was 4 years old) and he had other challenges. But the teachers at Pleasantview helped him. Now, going into eighth grade, he’s active in sports, camping, writing, and other activities.
“I’m paying it forward,” says Hoffman. “I truly believe it starts at the very beginning. Pleasantview did such a great job with my son. Now, it’s my turn.”
One of the biggest pitfalls of the job, admits Hoffman, is dialing back her enthusiasm when she comes home.
“I’m the wackadoodle lady [at school]. I’m the lady who’s going to give the kids a crazy face or dance to make them smile,” says Hoffman. “But then I come home and I’m still acting goofy. My husband looks at me like I’m nuts.”
Job hazards aside, Hoffman is committed to the students of Pleasantview and has no plans to leave anytime soon – a lucky thing for everyone involved.