Instructor is national teacher of the year

Don Devito's students performed at Carnegie Hall. They've gone to Nashville and Seattle and, via the Internet, performed with students in Pakistan and Kenya.

Dr. Donald Devito, music director at Sidney Lanier Center, has won the national ESE teacher of the year award, the Clarissa Hug Award from the Council for Exceptional Children, shown during class, Tuesday, January 4, 2010 in Gainesville, Fla.

Erica Brough/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 11:08 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 10:53 p.m.

As Don Devito's students at Sidney Lanier School bang along on the drums, the teacher purses his lips and plays a wild melody on flute.

"You can keep the beat, make the rhythm or do your own thing," he told his students before they began to play.

Devito's inventiveness in the classroom has led the Council for Exceptional Children to recognize him as its national teacher of the year. He has worked as the music director at Sidney Lanier for a decade, using his love for special education and music to break down barriers.

His students performed last year in Carnegie Hall. They've gone to Nashville and Seattle under his tutelage, and through internet video conferences, they've performed with students from Pakistan and Kenya.

"I take my kids where others get to go," he said.

From a professor at Queensland University in Australia to the music director at a small school for the mentally and visually impaired in Pakistan, Devito has cultivated a diverse network for sharing ideas and developing grants.

"We're looking to really change the way programs for special needs collaborate with each other," he said. "It's amazing what we've been able to accomplish."

Arthur Gill, a music director in Pakistan, said working with Devito has helped his students immensely.

"Artists are always very honest and sincere to their work," he said. "Don is a true artist."

Gill said Devito goes above and beyond, sending money to help with programs and assisting on a grant proposal to send Gill to the University of London for training.

"We are sharing the culture," he said. "It's the very best part of our collaboration."

Devito said he is working alongside other teachers to get computer equipment so all schools in the network can Skype. In his own classroom, Devito pushes his students to express themselves musically.

Lyndon White, 19, is deaf and suffers from cerebral palsy, but put a drum in front of him, Devito said, and he speaks through the rhythm.

"He has a music voice," he said. "We use one to help with the other."

Lena Cloutier, 15, counts the New York trip as a memorable experience.

"It was pretty fun," she said. "Everyone was clapping for us."

Cloutier said Devito is a good teacher — but a better drummer than singer.

"I like to come to music class and play the drums and learn," she said. "He's very good at teaching."

Mario Lopez, 21, serves as the drum major.

"He's a very good teacher, teaching us how to do all kinds of music," he said.

Devito said his students learn self confidence and don't doubt themselves.

"We're just showing that they have the ability to do what everyone else does," he said.

Contact Jackie Alexander at or 338-3166.

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