Osborne celebrates being named Horizon's Teacher of the Year, beating cancer

For Horizon Intermediate's Teacher of the Year, Joy Osborne, there are no excuses. There are relationships and there's perseverance. She teaches fifth grade English language arts, social studies and no student is allowed to get a zero on an assignment.

As she was growing up in Lawton, Osborne's mother worked, went to college and made a life for the two of them on her own. There were stretches of days in the first grade when she was shuffled between friends of the family at night while her mother worked. But during the day, she had her teacher, Mrs. Quickle.

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"I hardly ever stayed at my own house," she said. "Mrs. Quickle is the reason why relationships are so important to me. I knew she cared."

Her mother finished her nursing degree but times were still hard. Her dad was in and out their lives, sometimes wreaking havoc. After her high school graduation, she started pharmacy school.

"Pharmacy was an area where women were equal," she said. "Having to be my mom, my dad, everything in my life, my mom wanted me to always be a strong woman," she said.

She was in the second year of pharmacy school when her professional fraternity started tutoring Oklahoma City students.

"It was then I realized I wanted to be a teacher. Seeing their eyes light up, I knew this was what I wanted to do," she said.

Osborne has been teaching for 16 years, nine at Mustang. The academics are important, but Osborne said at this age, they need to know someone cares. She greets the kids at the door every day and "checks their weather."

"I look at their eyes and see how their day is going," she said. "It's very symbolic. Kid's get it. They may not want to talk about their feelings but they know what you mean. Without sharing too much detail, I can share my experiences. If they can see someone who cares about them who has been through that, it makes a difference."

Osborne also trains teachers. Her material always includes her childhood and the struggles. She tells them about her mother who didn't always make it to parent/teacher conferences because she was picking up extra shifts to pay another bill. Osborne always tells them about Mrs. Quickle.

"Teachers need to know," she said. "Mrs. Quickle didn't have to give her resources to work with me."

In July last year, Osborne found a lump in her breast. She went from seeing her doctor to an emergency mammogram, ultrasound and a biopsy on the same day. She got the diagnosis when she and her mother were in the car, Rachel Platten singing, "Fight Song" on the stereo. Osborne had two different kinds of cancer, one on each side. One week later she had a double mastectomy.

She was worried her oncologist would ban her from teaching to save her from the germs that make their way around a school. Despite the dangers, the oncologist encouraged her. It was obvious what teaching meant to her.

"When you have a passion for teaching, that's the only natural thing to do. That's what gave me strength," she said.

Two weeks after that, she went back to school. Her coworkers had already unpacked the boxes of her teaching materials and put her room together. The place that gave her strength to face the dark times in her childhood, would get her through this as well.

At open house, she told the parents about the diagnosis. The next day, she told her students.

"I told the kids my immune system was going to be weakened and I needed them to be in charge of my immune system not being effected by germs. I told them when they entered the room they need to gel their hands. If you give kids a responsibility like that, they really step up."

She asked her oncologist to put off the start of chemotherapy for two weeks. The district installed a Purell dispenser inside the classroom door and for those 10 days, the kids practiced the new routine.

She shaved her head so that cancer couldn't make her hair fall out. She had chemo on Thursdays so she could recuperate on the weekends. There were days when she taught exhausted from her chair. There were others when someone had to cover her bus line or gym duty, but she taught her classes. Former students and parents dropped in bringing colorful hats. Her students watched for signs it was a rough day and they did their best to take care of her.

"On my fourth treatment, the 'Red Devil,' I had sores in my mouth the week of parent teacher conferences. I was on a liquid diet. I couldn't eat sweets. I couldn't drink out of a straw. My diet was soups. That was a time it was painful to talk."

Osborne came to school anyway.

"There are some people who never see the end of chemo and they wish they could get out and live life," she said. "What am I going to do? Cry at home and have a pity party? It wasn't about me. It was about the kids. I wanted to be here for the kids."

On Dec. 10, she had her final round of chemotherapy. On the 11th, she came to school. First thing that morning, she was called to the gym. The entire school was inside. To celebrate the end of her treatment with her, they broke out into Osborne's anthem, "Fight Song" by Rachel Platten. The students - more than 750 of them - had been practicing in music class in secret.

"That is something I will never forget," Osborne said fighting back tears.

Despite the chemo and the weakness, Osborne missed only five days of school last semester. No excuses. It was perseverance and relationships.

"I feel like my students have learned this year from me that sometimes you come to school even on the tough days," she said. "Some days aren't going to be your best but it doesn't mean you sit at home. I hope it showed, 'You're that important to me that I come here to teach this class.' It never crossed my mind not to be here."
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