Russ Aley was a teacher in the West Valley School District for more than a decade when failing vision forced him to give up his job. But he didn’t leave the district. He brought his passion for children to a new role – the district’s first parent engagement liaison.
He and his guide dog, a golden lab named Hera, are fixtures at district events, appearing at everything from PTO meetings to bingo nights. Aley said it’s his job to create relationships with parents as well as children.
“That’s exactly what my position is here, building relationships,” he said. “If you have students I get to help. I’m trying to support kids, support staff, support parents.”
Part of his job is to connect parents to social services if they need them.
“Some of the parents I work with are young themselves,” he said. “We’re trying to get them the support they need.”
Aley started his career as a kindergarten teacher, then taught first and third grade before teaching physical education for eight years. He has an eye disease called Fuchs dystrophy as well as retinitis pigmentosa. His vision has been steadily failing. He can see faces, but everything from the shoulders down disappears. He got Hera in 2018 to help him.
“She helps me get around and avoid tripping on people,” he said.
When his vision worsened, Aley and the district agreed he had to give up teaching PE. “We agreed it wasn’t a safe situation,” he said. “Kids could run off. I can’t catch a football.”
But Aley said the district worked to find a new role for him. “They could have said, ‘Russ, you’re done,’ ” he said. “But they knew I was passionate about kids.”
He was a math specialist for three years and he took his new position at the beginning of this school year. Part of his job is also to meet with students who are having difficulties for one reason or another. “That was part of the deal when I took this job,” he said. “I didn’t want to lose touch with the kids.”
He said that Hera helps him in his job. He points to a recent incident where a child was being disruptive and didn’t want to talk about what was bothering him. Aley said that was fine and sat down next to him. Then he asked the student if he would do him a favor and pet Hera, who had been working all morning and needed a break. He took Hera’s harness off, which is her signal that she’s no longer working, and Aley said he could see the tension leave the student as he pet Hera. He was soon able to talk about what was bothering him.
“She’s an easy in, especially with kids,” Aley said.
Hera seems to love the attention she gets from students. She’s quiet and focused when wearing her harness, but when it’s off she transforms, wagging happily and licking people’s faces and hands while asking them to play.
Aley often has counselors ask him to meet with specific students, but Aley said he’s there to listen, not counsel the student. He said he tries to encourage students to have a positive attitude and tells them that they can do whatever they set their mind to. He points to himself as an example.
“I don’t want kids to see me as someone with a disability,” he said. “I want them to see me as someone who cares about them.”
Aley works out of Orchard Center Elementary School and said when he got Hera students were taught about guide dog etiquette, including not petting the dog unless they’re told they can. Overall, students have been respectful about keeping their distance from Hera when she’s working, Aley said. “I go out at recess and take the harness off and I’m immediately surrounded by 15, 20 kids,” he said.
So far Aley has been focused on meeting people and handing out hundreds of business cards as he tries to spread the word about his work. He tells people that he’s there to help with anything.
“Anything we can do to help,” he said. “This is new to me. I’m learning as we go what things we can provide our parents.”
He said his position is just the latest way the West Valley district is trying to help its students succeed. “West Valley is a team,” he said. “It takes all of us, whether it’s teachers or support staff or custodians.”
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