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Profile in Excellence: Blending Life Skills and Math

January 22, 2008

As an elementary education major at OBU, Debbie Lott McBee took one special education class and decided she would never teach in that area. Things change. Today, she's a hit with students at a Washington State correctional facility, specializing in behavior disorders.

Echo Glen Children's Center in Snoqualmie, Wash., is a juvenile detention center where young offenders serve their sentences. The center partners with Issaquah School District to provide a quality education to the young people housed there. Debbie landed in Washington with her husband, college beau David McBee, who is from the Evergreen State. A native of Pennsylvania, Debbie credits OBU with bringing the pair together.

Once in Washington, Debbie was a substitute teacher at Echo Glen, calming a rowdy class whose members reportedly stabbed and otherwise harassed their full-time instructor. When the teacher resigned, the principal received 500 applications and conducted 30 interviews - but he wanted McBee in the slot. However, the 1976 OBU graduate had not earned her secondary education endorsement, and family finances weren't equipped to cover graduate classes.

But Debbie stepped out on faith - with encouragement from her husband - and began studies at Seattle University. On her first night in class, she received a full scholarship.

"This job is where God put me," she said. "He put it in my heart that I love this place and I love the kids."

McBee teaches math - in a very creative way - and parenting skills. The parenting classes include talk about birth control, choosing when to become a parent and making wise choices (such as adoption) for unborn children.

"We try to stop the cycle because these kids are having kids at age 14 or 15, then we get their kids when they are 14 or 15," she said.

In her 17 years at the facility, McBee has discovered that not all kids - or parents - view it as a particularly bad place to be. For some juveniles, it is the safest place they've known. And from the families' perspectives, "it's almost like a right of passage rather than a bad thing," she said.

Echo Glen is more of a rehabilitation center than a prison, McBee said. She focuses on teaching kids how to respect adults and function well as they return to society.

Most kids at the facility don't function well even in their classrooms, lacking skills to relate to their teachers. But both students and faculty recognize McBee as an unflappable model of patience, immune to anger.

"I look at it this way: God placed this person in my class for a reason," she said. "If they see Jesus in me, I'm the only Christ they've known. So I have a job to do there."

She lets her students know why she teaches at Echo Glen.

"God showed me I had to decide who I'm going to be regardless of what's going on around me," she tells them. "I'm here to be a good model for you."

McBee discovered a unique way to teach her students math: a two-hour cooking class. In a hands-on environment, her students learn how to build thinking skills while they learn to relate to their classmates respectfully. If the curriculum calls for converting decimals to fractions, McBee gives her students a recipe with decimals and they make the conversions before they cook. Then they practice their life skills while they relate to one another in the kitchen.

"I create a one-on-one situation where I can interact and correct students without doing it in front of the group," she explained. "During the cooking lessons is when all the behavioral lessons we have practiced come out."

McBee's influence at Echo Glen positively impacts both students and faculty. She facilitates reconciliation between teachers who are resistant to certain students because of past behavioral issues, and students who want to do better.

She also uses her behavioral studies to carefully share her foundation for life - her faith in God.

"In teaching life skills, I teach them Proverbs," she said. "My students all know that a soft word turns away wrath."

Click the following link to view a full list of previous Profile in Excellence recipients.