Thank You For Helping Nelson Beat The Odds #TeacherAppreciationWeek

“Mrs. Tobey was my sixth and seventh grade resource teacher. I remember hating going to her class because I didn’t want anyone to know that I was in special education. At a time in my life when I felt this small, Mrs. Tobey made me feel really big.”


On March 9, 2015 I decided to honor seven former teachers at a school board meeting.  graduated with my Master of Social work from Virginia Commonwealth University. I prepared a speech and presented each teacher with a Virginia Commonwealth University cup full of candy, key chains and pencils. I also attached a note which thanked them for being a part of my success story.

The event was the catalyst for my book Nelson Beats The Odds. I reconnected with my former special education teacher, Ruth Tobey, and she encouraged me to tell my story. Mrs. Tobey is one of the greatest teachers of all time. I shared an emotional video clip of my presentation to Mrs. Tobey with Christopher Peralta from WTVR-CBS 6. Christopher ran a story on the event. I felt obligated to honor my teachers because without them I would not have made it out of Essex High School. I was a struggling learner, spending seven years in remediation and special education. School didn’t come easy to me but these seven people saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself at that time. Below is a speech that I presented at the school board.

Ruth Tobey and Secretary of Education, Anne Holton

“First, I would like to Thank Mrs. Roane, Ms. Saunders the superintendent and the Essex County School Board for this opportunity. My name is Ronnie Sidney, II, MSW and I am an Outpatient Therapist at the Warsaw Counseling Center and a recent graduate of the VCU School of Social Work program.

I was educated in the Essex County Public School system from kindergarten through twelfth grade. It wasn’t all peaches and cream, I was a hyperactive kid with a short attention span and really bad handwriting. I was diagnosed with a learning disability and spent five years in special education. With each passing year came feelings of resentment and stigmatization which led to a loss of interest in school. When I graduated high school in 2001, I had a 1.8 GPA and was ranked at the bottom of my class.

I highlighted my educational journey in a presentation that I created entitled “Beating The Odds: How I survived Special Education.” In the presentation I talk about a rock climbing technique called belaying. Belying is described as one of the most important parts of rock climbing because you literally hold the life of the climber in the palm of your hands. While the climber scales the rock, the belayer stands beneath them in a harness with a rope in their hand applying friction whenever the climber is not moving, and removing the friction from the rope whenever the climber moves. The belayer helps the climber build confidence, skill and strength by helping prevent the climber from falling very far or seriously injuring themselves. The teachers that I am honoring today were my belayers, they helped me build confidence and skill by supporting me along my educational journey.

Illustration of Ruth Tobey, Nelson Beats The Odds

With the help of Ms. Saunders and Ms. Roane, I was able to reach out to several teachers who supported me along the way. The teachers that I had asked them to invite are Ms. Wilson, Mr. Wright, Ms Tobey, Mrs Dockary, Mrs Smith, Ms. Shipp, Ms. Kurzack, and Ms. Compton. The first teachers that I would like to recognize are my fourth grade teachers Mrs. Wilson and Mr. Wright. I was taken aback seeing the two teaching fourth graders a couple of years ago when I was visiting my niece because they taught me back in ‘94. Mrs. Wilson had a heart of gold. I had gotten into a fight in her classroom room one day and surprisingly she didn’t send me to the principal’s office. Thank you Mrs. Bates for saving me from the butt whooping I would have received when I got home. I would also like to honor Mr. Wright. Mr. Wright was my first male African American teacher and one of the few that I have had throughout the years, including college. Mr. Wright was an awesome role model and one of the few teachers whose class I tried very hard behave in.

The next teacher deserves great distinction. Mrs. Tobey was my sixth and seventh grade resource teacher. I remember hating going to her class because I didn’t want anyone to know that I was in special education. At a time in my life when I felt this small, Mrs. Tobey made me feel really big. She has an unbelievably warm presence and is one of the most positive and encouraging people that I’ve ever met. I cannot thank her enough for the impact she has made on my life and continues to make.

There are four high school educators that I want to honor tonight. The first two are Mrs. Lillian Smith and Mrs. Princess Dockary. I cannot mention one without mentioning the other; they are like two peas in a pod! These two women are my honorary grandmothers. They empowered me by setting their expectations of me high and challenging me with leadership opportunities. I had the opportunity to represent the school as president of FCCLA and present at state conferences. I owe so much to them and I will always love them.

Mrs. Lillian Smith

Mrs. Rena Shipp, thank you for your kindness, wisdom and patience. You always saw potential in me and thank you for nurturing it. I remember when my Algebra II teacher found out that I had received D’s in Geometry and Algebra I and wanted me to go back and repeat those two classes and you stepped up and went to bat for me, thank you. Mrs. Shipp is also an author so meet with her afterward and purchase one of her books.

Chef Rock and Rena Shipp

Lastly, I would like to honor Mrs. Kurzack and Mrs. Compton. Mrs. Kurzack was my senior English teacher whose famous words “Choose your battles wisely” still echoes through my head when dealing with interpersonal conflicts. Ms. Kurzack recognized my public speaking abilities and encouraged me to join debate and forensics. My forensics coach was Mrs. Compton and she helped me further develop my public speaking skills. At the competitions I would deliver a speech I wrote called “A Dream Deferred”. Thanks to you all, I was able to turn a dream that I once deferred into reality.

There are so many Essex County educators and staff who deserve recognition and a few that stand out in my mind are Mrs. Fauntleroy, Mrs. Teegarden, Mrs. Banks, Mrs. Carson, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Holmes, Mr. Hartso, Mrs. Hartso, Mr. Whitaker, Mrs. Futchko, Mrs. Cauthorn, Mrs. Bayton, Mr. Mitchell, Mrs. Gray, Coach Jones, Mrs. Haley, Mrs. Ruffin and Mrs. Garrett.

Dean Jim Hinterlong, VCU School of Social Work

I did not become a statistic because a handful of educator’s belief in me inspired me to believe in myself. Steve Harvey said, “Behind every success story are others helping to make it happen.”

I would like to thank all the educators out there for the job you do or have done. I want you to know that the difference you make in these children’s lives today extends beyond your interactions with them in elementary school, middle school or high school. You leave a lasting impression on their lives so I challenge you to be belayers and help play a part in making your student’s success story happen!”

For more information about Nelson Beats The Odds visit our website here.

Author: Ronnie Sidney II, MSW

Ronnie Sidney, II, MSW, is a father, therapist, author, app developer, professional speaker, philanthropist and entrepreneur. He received a Master of Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2014. Ronnie was raised in Tappahannock, Virginia, and attended Essex County Public Schools (ECPS). While attending ECPS, he spent several years in Special Education after being diagnosed with a learning disability. The stigmatization of special education created a lack of interest in school. With limited options regarding four-year colleges, he decided to enroll in J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Virginia. The following year, he transferred to Old Dominion University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Services in 2006. Sidney has since published two books, "Nelson Beats the Odds" and "Tameka's New Dress". He also developed the Nelson Beats the Odds Comic Creator.

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