Growing up in Ohio with a deaf brother and disabled sister, Linda Horist learned that every child deserves the encouragement to achieve anything they want in life.
"Never once did I consider my brother Bill or sister Karen different," said Horist, a second-grade teacher at Nohl Canyon Elementary in Anaheim.
"My family was told to put them in a state facility because they could never really learn like 'normal' people," she said. "The doctors obviously didn't know our family. They told us we couldn't teach them at home. We said, 'Watch us.'"
Her father fashioned homemade physical therapy devices for her younger sister and her mother drove her older brother more than 30 miles each way to attend special classes for the deaf.
"I remember one afternoon having Bill coming home in tears, his face covered with the dirt thrown on him by kids making fun of how he talked," Horist recalled. "Another time Karen was told she had to stand in the corner because she was too stupid to do anything else. I remember drying their tears, and I did what was second nature."
Normal life events became a teachable moments in her family.
"Our days were spent teaching them to talk, count, tie their shoes and navigate a world that was often cruel," Horist said.
Experiences with her brother and sister inspired her to teach and advocate for children with special needs, including Asperger's, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cerebral palsy and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Today, she drives home this message to her students: "You can do, be, dream, and become anything you want to."
"I want students to engage in their own learning, to look at challenges from different points of view, to try things they haven't tried before and to know that the process of trying is the basis for their success," said Horist, who was named California Teacher of the Year in 2014.
"I view each student as having their own distinct personality and learning style," she said. "My goal is to infuse each student with a lifelong love of learning as I establish enduring connections. These foundations impact my students' learning as well as their confidence."
Ultimately, Horist hopes to instill self-confidence in children while teaching them empathy for the world around them.
"I want my students to grow up with compassion and caring for each other, to recognize and appreciate the differences in each other, and to know that we can all learn from each other — now and for the rest of our lives," she said. "Every child needs someone to believe in them, and to help them become the very best version of themselves."