After nearly three decades in education, Denise Johnson is set to retire. Johnson, the director of the Wayne D. Boshears Center for Exceptional Programs said it has been the privilege of her life to watch the students learn and grow.

For her, the greatest joy comes in seeing nonverbal students learn to interact with the world around them. Boshears provides opportunities for students with severe and profound disabilities.

Johnson has been with Tyler ISD for the past decade and was with Lindale ISD for 18 years prior.

Her passion for special education was born out of the work she did with her father-in-law’s ministry.

“I worked with the deaf community in Dallas. That started my passion for children with special needs,” she said.

When she began teaching a gifted and talented class, she made her students put their gifts to good use.

“The Life Skills class was next door to my gifted and talented class,” she said. “I had them work side by side. My kids used their gifts to create things that would be helpful.”

After moving to Jones Elementary School as an assistant principal, Johnson was given the opportunity to head Boshears, which shares the campus.

“I love the unique nature of our campus, all of the teachers and staff have such a passion for students with disabilities,” she said. “What I love about it so much is every single day I see students with severe and profound disabilities making connections to the real world.”

Johnson said building relationships with the family of students is imperative to their success.

“I think our parents on a daily basis, they’re so grateful that we are willing to partner with them. What we’re doing at school, they’re doing at home,” Johnson said. “It’s a little bit lonely having a student with disabilities because not everyone understands.”

Johnson does understand, though. In retirement, she plans to spend more time with her grandchildren. One of them has special needs.

Boshears students may be in the program until their early 20s, as the staff works to help them develop skills that will allow them to interact in society. When a student has a breakthrough, it is a heartwarming moment for the family and staff.

“We had a student that for the first time communicated to the parents, ‘I love you,’” she said. “For the parent, that is immensely joyful that they could finally hear that.”

Johnson said moments like these bring everyone to tears. They don’t pause for long, though, using these breakthroughs as an opportunity to pin down what processes helped make that progress.

“You see everything you’re doing after years pay off, it really reinforces what you’re doing,” Johnson said. “We try to build off of it. If we figure out something that finally works, we try to keep going, gain momentum.”

Wayne Boshears said it takes educators with a passion like Johnson’s to ensure special needs students get the love and attention they deserve.

“I feel like she certainly has been able to keep our program going in a very positive way, serving kiddos and parents in a very positive way,” he said. “This program has served a population of very medically fragile and behaviorally impacted students.”

When hiring educators and aides, Johnson looks for that same passion in each of them.

“I can teach you methodology, but I can’t teach passion,” she said. “When I hire, I hire passion. They need to love my kids and want them to be better when they leave here.”

Johnson said it won’t be easy for her to walk away at the end of the school year.

“I’m blessed, blessed, blessed beyond works to have such an amazing family and career,” she said. “I'll always be available for whatever is needed and I hope I'll have the opportunity to continue to see them grow.”

She is looking forward to one last graduation ceremony and shedding tears alongside the extended family she has built at Boshears.

Twitter: @TMT_Cory

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Cory is a multimedia journalist and member of the Education Writers Association, Criminal Justice Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He has appeared on The Murder Tapes, Crime Watch Daily and Grave Mysteries on Investigation Discovery.