Here's our story about Century High School teacher Sonia Ellsworth, who is currently battling breast cancer. While we have to break it into two stories for print, here's the original version for the Web. I've also included the links to the articles.
Teacher of the Month: Cancer takes back seat for Century High educator
When Sonia Ellsworth's morning alarm sounds, she stays in bed awake for another 15 minutes.
|Teacher of the month
This month: Century High School teacher Sonia Ellsworth has been named Post-Bulletin Teacher of the Month for December. Ellsworth is currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer, which she has been battling for almost four years.
Nominating teachers: The Post-Bulletin and Newspaper In Education invite you to nominate a K-12 teacher who is making a difference. Selection criteria include personal initiative, going beyond the call of duty, innovative methods and encouraging students to achieve academic goals.
Instead, she thinks about teaching science to ninth-graders.
Ellsworth, a science educator at Century High School, has been named the Post-Bulletin Teacher of the Month for December. She is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and while she has endured at least two surgeries and several rounds of chemotherapy since her 2006 diagnosis, she remains in the classroom.
"It takes my mind off of it," said Ellsworth, 41. "I was going stir crazy after about a week or so at home. It was good for me to get back here. ... When I'm (at school), I generally don't think about the cancer."
When she isn't pondering that day's science lab, Ellsworth wants to ensure that her own two children, 12-year-old Jonathan and 9-year-old Stephanie, are ready for school. She blocks her own struggles from her mind.
"I try not to think about (cancer) right away. It's really not a good way to start the day," Ellsworth said.
It's that positive attitude that teachers and students mention when asked to describe the more-than-19-year teaching veteran. The Post-Bulletin received 23 recommendation letters describing Ellsworth's courage and praising her teaching ability.
Eleventh-grader Allie Streiff called Ellsworth one of the most influential people she has ever met.
"She is someone that doesn't let any of her problems get in her way of teaching every day," Streiff wrote.
Forced from classroom
The first round of chemotherapy forced the Century High School teacher homebound in 2006, from mid-February until the end of spring break.
But she returned to school that year and finished the last few weeks. Since then, she has kept steady attendance.
The first days were dark, Ellsworth said. But soon after, she decided to "plow through the issues."
"You can go home, shut the door, close the blinds and sit and stew about it, but you feel worse. And you try those things for awhile, but it goes nowhere fast," Ellsworth said. "Worrying about it didn't fix anything, it didn't change anything. You can choose how you respond to it."
The past three years have been a self-described emotional roller-coaster for Ellsworth, her husband Duane and their two children.
Three surgeries. Several rounds of chemotherapy and more than a dozen different treatments in all. When a glimmer of hope arises, another test delivers a crushing setback: Infected lymph nodes or metastasized cells.
But as long as her Mayo Clinic doctors tell her another option exists, Ellsworth remains positive.
"Whenever something bad happens, as long as I know there are options, I'm OK," Ellsworth said. "I'm afraid that when we get to the point when we run out of options, I don't know what I'll do."
How long will those options remain? She isn't so sure.
After Christmas, when others are prepping New Year Eve plans, she will be eagerly waiting for medical tests. Doctors found in October that the cancer metastasized "all over the place," Ellsworth said.
"One of my doctors was looking at the scans, looked at me, looked back at the scans and said, 'It's almost impossible to believe that is the same person," Ellsworth said.
'Shoving a boulder'
Many parents and students heard "cancer" and didn't think they would see Ellsworth around much after the 2005-06 school year. Others see her in the classroom now and give a double take.
Century High School Principal Chuck Briscoe recalled thinking Ellsworth wouldn't be teaching much longer after a fundraiser in spring of 2008.
"I just hoped to heck that through some miracle she would be back in the fall and that was last year. Through setback after setback, it's an amazing thing that she's still here," said Briscoe, who called Ellsworth a source of inspiration. "The neatest thing about her is she has never complained and she certainly has every right in the world to do so. She has lot of chances where she could have complained or given up but she never has.
"Knowing some of the stuff she is going through, when you think of your own problems it feels kind of a pebble in a shoe and she's shoving a boulder around," Briscoe said.
Not only a job, a passion
Last week, Ellsworth helped her ninth-grade physical science students prepare for a test. Similar to any classroom, a group of inquiring minds formed at the teacher's desk, a line comparable to the corral at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
It's hard not to catch a double meaning in signs posted on the classroom's walls: Believe in yourself -- you can do it. Push aside the fear of failure. Prioritize: What is most important?
One by one, each question gets answered, each student gets helped. Above all, that's what gets Ellsworth through the day. Not her own personal fight, but the struggle to educate students of the Internet age.
It's all about helping a struggling student finally have that "aha" moment, Ellsworth said. She describes her work as not only a job, but also her hobby.
"If I get some ideas across to as many kids as I can, or even to that one kid who thinks they don't understand anything about science, that's what keeps me going," she said. "They may not remember exactly what they learned. They may not remember the exact lesson, but my hope is they take away some of those skills."
Most ninth-graders don't know too much about lymph nodes, tumors and metastasis.
"Here, I can focus on what I'm doing," Ellsworth said. "(Cancer) doesn't matter when I'm here."