Durham PE teacher wins national award for work with special needs students

Posted March 24

— When Lara Brickhouse was a traditional physical education teacher working with middle school students, she felt something was missing. So she began using her lunch breaks and planning periods to work with special needs students at her school, helping them learn about movement and exercise.

She loved working with them so much, she transitioned to a new role as an adapted PE teacher, allowing her to help special needs students fulltime.

Last week, she was named the national Adapted PE Teacher of the Year by SHAPE America, the Society of Health and Physical Educators. The award comes with a $1,000 stipend and the ability to travel the country, all expenses paid, to give presentations about adapted PE during the next year. She's already booked for San Diego in July.

"It's still very surreal and very humbling for me, because I wouldn't be where I am without my students and the people I work with," Brickhouse said, crying. "When people ask me if I have kids and I say, 'no,' that's really not the right answer, because I have 110 of my students that I consider my kids, and there's not a lot that I wouldn't do for them."

Brickhouse is one of four adapted PE teachers in Durham Public Schools. She works with nine schools in the county, helping children with varying degrees of needs, from high-functioning autism to those with severe physical limitations. She previously worked in the same role in Pitt County Schools.

Lara Brickhouse

WRAL News visited Brickhouse at Lowes Grove Middle School in Durham on Thursday to see one of her PE classes in action. With help from teacher assistants, she took students through numerous exercises, including running, jumping and touching their toes.

When a student using a walker tried to run the length of the gym, Brickhouse ran beside him, encouraging him to keep going. When a student in a wheelchair wanted to race around the gym with her classmates, Brickhouse stayed with her, pushing her chair to help her keep up.

Lara Brickhouse

But sometimes, the lessons are more basic.

"We may not be focusing on how to shoot 10 free throws using perfect form," Brickhouse said. "We’re focusing on how to wait in line and how to wait their turn so, eventually, they can wait at a crosswalk and cross the road successfully."

She worries those lessons will be lost if class sizes are reduced next year due to a new state law. If the law takes effect, many school leaders across the state say they may be forced to cut specials teachers, including PE, art and music.

"It's a very difficult time to receive such an award when we don't know one day to the next who is going to have a position next year and who isn't," Brickhouse said. "Hopefully the importance of physical education and the arts can be shown through different ways and people can understand that."

As she waits to see whether state lawmakers make changes to the class size law, Brickhouse says she is staying focused on her students.

"The biggest thing with this award is not a resume builder for me. It's more of a platform that I can use to continue to advocate for my students, for our profession, for physical education as a whole," she said.

In the 10 years she has worked in PE, Brickhouse has taught special needs students aquatics, bicycle safety and vocational skills. She has also been awarded 11 financial grants to help buy equipment and start local recreation and leisure programs.

"I'm grateful to do what I do," Brickhouse said. "People say, 'Oh, you have so much patience. I don't know how you do it.' (But) I could not do anything else ... This is me. This is my life. This is what I do." ​

Lara Brickhouse


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