Connie Bagley is no ordinary classroom teacher — a fact that almost got her name scratched from the list of teacher of the year nominees for her campus this spring.

Thankfully the criteria were clarified and the dyslexia specialist was included on the ballot, because she went on to be named Crockett Elementary Teacher of the Year, San Marcos CISD Teacher of the Year, and Region 13 Elementary Teacher of the Year. Then to top it all off, she was honored as one of three finalists for 2014 Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year.

No, Connie Bagley is no ordinary teacher; she’s one of the best. Maybe that’s because — even after 41 years of teaching — her focus remains on the difference she can make for her students.

Every day I come in and say, ‘OK, am I going to make a positive impact, a negative impact or am I just going to be a slug today?’” she says. “Some days I’m tired or I didn’t get this or that done, or there’s so much to do, but that little guy is counting on me to be uplifting and excited and happy he’s here, and he needs to see that, so I keep coming back.”

Changing paths

Bagley has been coming back to Crockett Elementary since 1986. She first taught second grade, then in 1993 an invitation to an after-school meeting at the district’s central office piqued her curiosity and changed her direction as an educator.

The meeting was with H.Y. Price, a local business owner who was concerned that some students in San Marcos might be dyslexic but weren’t getting the type of instruction they needed to become good readers. (Bagley only recently learned that members of Price’s own family struggled with dyslexia.)

He offered to pay for specialized training for any teachers willing to pursue it, and Bagley was the first to raise her hand. While she hadn’t learned about dyslexia in college, she had observed these struggling readers in her classroom and knew, despite a variety of backgrounds, that they must have something in common.

“The more I heard about dyslexia and how it affects children, I thought, ‘I know some of those kids,’” she says. “I was doing everything I thought I should as a teacher and they still weren’t learning to read.”

So Bagley and a handful of colleagues set off for Dallas for the first of many training opportunities. Twenty years later, each of San Marcos CISD’s nine campuses has a dyslexia specialist, and Price’s San Marcos Civic Foundation continues to fund the training portion of the dyslexia program. (In fact, the foundation now supports nearly 20 Central Texas school districts that have requested funding for such professional development.)

Learning differences

Today, a converted conference room on the newly rebuilt Crockett campus provides a cozy learning environment where Bagley teaches students who’ve shown characteristics of dyslexia. She uses tools — including phonics and multi-sensory teaching methods — she’s gathered through two decades of training to help her students gain the strategies and skills they need to overcome the challenges of dyslexia.

Bagley calls it a “learning difference,” not a disorder, because her students simply learn differently. “These kids will sit in front of a computer or TV and listen to videos on space and science and history, and they take it all in,” she says. “That’s why they love movies. They couldn’t tell me about a story they read yesterday, but they could tell me about a movie they saw three years ago. They’re very, very bright kids.”

But beyond equipping students with decoding strategies and appropriate accommodations, of which she is a strong proponent, Bagley says the most important part of her job is bolstering their self-esteem.

Some of them come down so defeated,” she says. “They sit in class and know they are as smart as Susie and Joe but ask, ‘Why can’t I get it on paper? Why does it take me so much longer? Why is it so hard for me?’ So that’s my main goal: Make them understand how smart they are.”

Boosting confidence

Bagley’s investment in her students’ self-worth has paid off for former students such as Maritza Collazo and Aidan Dietz, now all grown up and eager to show her the support she showed them.

The two recently took time out of their busy college and military careers to participate in the Texas Teacher of the Year competition video Bagley was asked to create. They spoke of how she helped boost their confidence and made them feel they could accomplish whatever they set their minds to.

Another former student, now a college sophomore, caught her on her way to the Teacher of the Year interview in Austin.

“As I was driving down the hill from my driveway, this kid came running around the corner,” she says. “I looked at him, and he ran up to the window, and I said ‘Avery, what are you doing?’ He said that his mother had read in the paper that morning that I was going to my interview and that he just came to tell me, ‘Go, get ’em.’”

These experiences, Bagley says, are why she continues to teach. “Someone asked me, ‘How do you do this for 41 years?’ It’s these kinds of stories, these kinds of kids,” she says. “You just don’t know what you might say or do that’s going to stick with a kid and could make a difference.”