A special teacher for wonderful kids

Eva Forgeron, a student of Joe Marsella, is all smiles as she enjoys time on the playground. (courtesy of Emily Forgeron)

A special teacher for wonderful kids

By Terry L. Wilson

For 30 years, teacher Joe Marsella has helped shaped the lives of countless special needs students during his tenure at Dingeman Elementary School’s Early Childhood Special Education preschool.

His dedication to the students, their families and the community has earned him superstar status in the eyes of everyone he has helped. Marsella received the San Diego Unified School District’s “Above & Beyond” award for his contributions to the community. 

“His two-year program was life-changing. Mr. Joe opened my autistic daughter’s world to learning,” parent Emily Forgeron said. “He tapped into everything she loved to build a trust with her, and this was an autistic child who was deeply afraid of unfamiliar men and would hide or cower around them. In Mr. Joe’s classroom, Eva (Forgeron’s daughter) had access to learn from peer models. She blossomed.” 

Marsella, known as Mr. Joe, explained his role. 

“My class is especially there for children with special needs,” he said. “But I also take children from the neighborhood as peer models, language models and social models. Right now, we have about half and half. In our morning session we have four children with special needs and four children without.”

Forgeron described an example involving her other daughter.

“Eva’s younger sister, Lily, is 4 and she is now a peer model in Mr. Joe’s class,” she said. “So, I have experienced both sides of how this program is beneficial for both a child with an IEP (Individualized Education Program) and one without.”

“When it comes to how the kids interact with each other, most of the time they don’t even notice that a few of their classmates have special needs. But there are times when some students are moving faster than those with special needs, and it’s our job to help them to understand that some kids require extra help. Our job is to explain things and to keep the special needs students included in the group. This is especially true when it come to kids with autism,” Marsella said. “A child with autism may not want to play with others, and that will confuse the non-special needs classmate. An autistic child can have an especially difficult time socializing with others. Our goal is to help students understand and to deal with certain situations like that. I think it’s a positive learning experience for the students without special needs.”

Part of Marsella’s “magic” is his unique ability to connect with students. In Eva’s case he recognized her affection for Sofia the First, an animated character in a Disney series. 

“First I had to watch the show to find out who Sofia the First was,” Marsella said. “Then I purchased a few items with Sofia’s picture to make Eva feel more comfortable. I’d never met anyone as apprehensive about coming into school as Eva, and getting those things for her just seemed like the right thing to do.”

Forgeron was able to witness the progress.

“Mr. Joe made sure he had plenty of Sofia toys, trinkets, books, plush toys and a special Sofia necklace to acclimate Eva to his classroom setting when school started. But over time, she no longer needed the necklace to go to school,” she said. “For his students’ birthdays, he honors their day with a special party in the classroom. For Eva’s celebration, he went all out with Sofia the First decorations, a cupcake for her to make a wish and presents. She sat at the head of the table and was glowing with happiness when her classmates sang to her. At past birthday parties, she would run away, overwhelmed when family and friends sang for her. Seeing how she responded to the celebration and Mr. Joe’s attention almost brought me to tears.”

Eva Forgeron works on a lesson with teacher Joe Marsella. (courtesy of Emily Forgeron)
Joe Marsella poses with some of his students. (courtesy of Emily Forgeron)

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