Amazing Educators: Portland's Jill Rebholz aims to empower
Jill Rebholz knows firsthand how a teacher can change a child's life.
After suffering a severe tonsil infection that spread and ruptured her ear drum back in elementary school, she was left with a hearing impairment. The impairment set her back, and her teachers discounted her intellect and potential. It wasn't until Rebholz was in fifth grade that a teacher recognized something beyond her hearing was amiss.
"I went into Ms. (Ellie) Dir's class in fifth grade and it was a breath of fresh air," Rebholz said. "She told my parents, 'I think Jill's really bright. I think she has a learning disability.'"
It was her teacher's suggestion that led to Rebholz being diagnosed with dyslexia.
"When I was diagnosed in fifth grade, I was reading at a second grade level," she said. "My dyslexia means my brain works different with print, with reading and writing. With that comes being very spatially aware, very artistically inclined."
This year marks Rebholz's 24th year of teaching. She's spent most of her career teaching second grade, with most of the past decade at Rieke Elementary School in Southwest Portland.
Rebholz said her fifth-grade teacher left a lasting mark on her.
"She changed my life and my trajectory as an educator," Rebholz said of Dir.
Rebholz, 48, grew up in Portland. She's the daughter of former professional baseball player and late Reed College professor Jerry Barta, whose legacy at Reed still lives on in its physical education program.
"When my dad taught at Reed, there were three student suicides in a year," Rebholz said. "He went to the administration and said 'I want to make P.E. a requirement. I don't care if it's climbing a tree or jumping a rope. These kids need to be active and socialize.'"
It's hard to deny that her own experiences with educators and a learning disability informed Rebholz's approach to teaching.
"My philosophy has always been to set my students up for success," she said. "I really believe our education system only serves about one third of our population. I believe there's a third of kids who never connect or feel complete at school. We all need to be set up to be successful. We all need to also accept that we are each unique. We talk about equity versus equality in my class. In my room, everybody gets what they need. Some kids who chew on pencils, I give them gum instead. Some have kick balls and standing desks and wiggle cushions. What do you need to be successful? I want you to figure it out. I'm going to set you up but I need you to advocate for that."
Most of her second graders know more about Rebholz than just the sound of her voice; they know about her life. On top of teaching, Rebholz is also the primary caretaker for her 90-year-old mother. The veteran teacher isn't shy about sharing her life with her students. Distance learning has all but necessitated it.
"I feel like this year, I'm more connected with my kids than ever before," Rebholz said. "The honesty and intimacy of being in each other's homes, it's definitely different. I've seen parents in the background in situations they don't want me to see. Because of that, we've all had to be really honest. It's taken off the Instagram lens."
Her candor and unwavering mission to meet the needs of her students hasn't gone unnoticed.
"Mrs. Rebholz has been an elementary school teacher for (nearly) 25 years and wows me every day with her work ethic, energy level and the way she is able to connect with a virtual classroom of nearly 30 7- and 8-year-olds for several hours each day," said Stephanie Campbell, whose 8-year-old son, Cooper, is in Rebholz's class.
Campbell noted Rebholz's full-time job, the effort that goes into caring for her mother and the time she dedicates to her own three boys, one of whom has special needs and a learning disability.
"I have no idea how she manages all this while still making each of these second graders feel special, known, seen, heard and loved (yes, she tells these kids how much she adores them every day and they tell her right back). This is a woman who truly loves what she does and her enthusiasm about learning is contagious."
Jill Rebholz is one of Pamplin Media Group's Amazing Educators for 2021! Click here to meet the rest.
Name: Jill Rebholz
School: Rieke Elementary School
Why she is amazing: Throughout her career, Rebholz has worked to meet students where they're at and set them up for success in the classroom. She's not afraid to challenge the status quo for the sake of a better educational outcome for children.
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