Never-say-quit teacher leaves a final lesson

June 15, 2010

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Degenerative disease cuts short beloved teacher’s career

At right, Steve Birdsall (left), Maple Hills Elementary fifth-grade teacher, keeps his students in line for a trip outside for their end-of-year class photo and video. By Greg Farrar

If you ask anyone at Maple Hills Elementary School who Steve Birdsall is, they’ll know just whom you’re talking about.

Quick to smile, always armed with a sense of humor, a tireless advocate for children’s education and the “best teacher ever,” students and faculty say.On June 17, Birdsall will stand in front of his fifth-grade classroom for the last time. He is retiring after a 23-year career in the Issaquah School District — 21 of those spent at Maple Hills.

“He was an awesome teacher,” said Andrew Brown, a Liberty High School freshman who had him as a teacher. “I remember him being the coolest teacher at the school.

“He was really easygoing and got to know his students, and he made class interesting and really fun. It didn’t drag on, it was always fun and enjoyable.”

A challenging diagnosis

It isn’t that he’s the last remaining male teacher at Maple Hills. And Birdsall’s classroom, like any other, has books filled with facts, white boards engulfed in mathematics problems and inspirational posters.

But unlike other classrooms, this teacher stands in front with a walker.

Birdsall, 51, was diagnosed with a rare degenerative disease, known as multiple system atrophy, last fall.

Multiple system atrophy is a neurological disorder that impairs the body’s involuntary or autonomic functions, including blood pressure and digestion, according to the Mayo Clinic. The disease also shares many symptoms with Parkinson’s disease, like muscle rigidity and poor balance.

Since his diagnosis, Birdsall said he has been undergoing clinical trials and tests to try to help doctors understand more about the disease, and he will continue to do so in the hopes that others don’t have to live with what he’s going through.

Despite his disease, the doctors and tests, Birdsall chose to stay in the classroom.

“This is my passion,” he said. Watching students, “the fact that they don’t get it and then they get it, it’s like this light bulb going on and you’re the one that found a way to make it happen.”

“He just loves it. He loves teaching,” his wife, Polly Vaughn, the school’s physical education teacher, said. “He loves being around the kids, something he loves to do and something he’s always done.”

“Mr. Birdsall is an inspiring teacher,” fifth-grader Jayme Shaw said.

Overcoming odds at every turn

This isn’t the first time Birdsall has been faced with overwhelming odds.

As a child, he struggled in school until he was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disability that impairs reading ability by transposing letters and words.

“I didn’t learn to read until I was 13,” he said, adding that two teachers, Mr. Jones at Issaquah Junior High School and Mr. Peterson at Issaquah High School, changed that. “They believed in me. I was a hard worker all the time, but it certainly didn’t come easy.

“I think that is why I’m so dedicated,” he said. “Teachers believed in me and they gave me the opportunities that led me here.”

He went on to college, first earning a degree in psychology from Linfield College in Oregon, and then another in teaching from Central Washington University after meeting his wife.

Birdsall and his wife eventually built a life centered on Maple Hills and even brought their two children, Madison Birdsall, a Liberty High School junior, and Kellen Birdsall, an eighth-grader at Maywood Middle School, to the community.

When the family finally told the community about Birdsall’s condition and pending retirement, the community established The Birdsall Family Trust, Maple Hills librarian and friend Carol Fujioka said.

The community overwhelmingly responded. An April 24 fundraiser for the trust sold out. The trust has more than $90,000 reserved for whatever the family may need, be it medical assistance, home remodeling so Birdsall can move around easier or college tuition for the children, she said.

“I am humbled, but not surprised at all by the community’s response, because they are such a big part of our community and between them have touched so many lives,” Fujioka said. “But the outpouring of support from everywhere, we didn’t expect that.”

Support for the trust has come from the community, the greater Issaquah area, across the state and in some cases the nation, she said.

“Both of us were surprised,” Polly Vaughn said. “You just do your job. People don’t really express how much he has done. Until something like this happens, you don’t really know how much it means.”

Life lessons to learn

In 21 years, Birdsall has touched the lives of hundreds of children, Principal Monique Beane said.

“I have a great deal of respect for him. He is an amazing teacher and it has been a privilege to work with him,” she said.

Jessica Scott, 29, or Jessica Smith as she was known in Birdsall’s fifth-grade class in 1991, said he was the coolest teacher, known for his affection for Jimmy Buffet songs, button-downed Hawaiian shirts and his Jeep. In particular, she said, she remembers their trip to Rainbow Lodge, where they spent the entire day hiking, playing football and learning about their classmates, she said.

“I have remembered that special day all through my life,” she said. “That was a really fun way to spend a field trip and one of my most memorable times at Maple Hills.”

Today, Birdsall teaches more than just academic facts, he is a living example of some of life’s most fundamental lessons: perseverance, dedication and passion.

“He never gives up,” fifth-grader Samantha Kelderman said. “If something is hard, he’ll never give up on us and he helps us.”

He, too, won’t give up, he said. Though he’s leaving the classroom, Birdsall said he is continuing with therapies and will enjoy watching his children grow up and going to their sports events.

As for what he hopes he leaves his students, and his two children, with, that’s simple.

“I hope that they learn patience and kindness,” he said. “I also hope they learn that not everyone is the same and that they should embrace it if people are different.”

There will be a hole that can’t be filled at Maple Hills in years to come, fifth-grade teacher and friend Mary Shimchick said, because he has been a mentor to many and a friend to all.

“He has the gift of teaching,” Shimchick said. “It’s just in his soul. There are those people you can tell, they are meant to be teachers.

“He is absolutely one of them.”

How to help

Go to The Birdsall Family Trust for ways to donate to the trust or e-mail to find out how you can volunteer in other ways.

Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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3 Responses to “Never-say-quit teacher leaves a final lesson”

  1. Focus of long-term care changing to living on June 17th, 2010 9:13 am

    […] Never-say-quit teacher leaves a last lesson Degenerative disease cuts small beloved teacher’s career If you inquire anyone on Maple Hills Elementary School who Steve Birdsall is, they’ll know now whom you’re talking about. Quick to smile, for all time armed by means of a sense of humor, a tireless advocate for children’s education and the “best teacher ever,” students and faculty say.On June 17, Birdsall determination place […] Read extra on Issaquah Press […]

  2. Steve Birdsall, former Maple Hills Elementary School teacher, dies : The Issaquah Press – News, Sports, Classifieds in Issaquah, WA on February 18th, 2011 5:31 pm

    […] retired in 2010 after the disease he and his doctors were fighting — multiple system atrophy — took its toll on his […]

  3. Avoiding the Past (tense) « Grumpy Butterfly's Blog on March 6th, 2012 7:45 pm

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