Diane Weeks, a kindergarten teacher at Richardson Elementary School, gets a hug from John Pedicon, a board member with Tucson Values Teachers. The local organization presented Weeks with its Teacher Excellence Award. Richardson, in the Flowing Wells Unified School District, is at 6901 N. Camino de la Tierra. A.E. ARAIZA / ARIZONA DAILY STAR

In a kindergarten classroom, it's expected that tears will be shed from time to time - but normally it isn't the teacher doing the crying.

On Monday morning, a student in Diane Weeks' Richardson Elementary School classroom handed the 55-year-old woman some tissue to dab her eyes.

The school year has been a challenging one for Weeks, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in May. She underwent a complete mastectomy during the summer and had chemotherapy treatments throughout the first semester.

Despite her health issues, Weeks made sure to schedule her treatments around events at the northwest-side school so she could be there for her students. She even organized a kindergarten dance festival, which will be held next month.

But Weeks' tears on Monday had nothing to do with the cancer - she completed chemotherapy in November and is in the clear for now. Instead, they were tears of joy as she learned she was receiving a Teacher Excellence Award from a local organization called Tucson Values Teachers.

"I feel like I've been reborn after going through chemotherapy, and everything means so much to me," said Weeks, who has taught kindergarten for nearly three decades. "The last 29 years have been a gift to me and I hope in some regard to the children as well. It's a privilege for me to come every day and watch them grow and learn."

By all accounts, Weeks' students have taken more from her class than just colors and numbers.

"I think parents who started this year wondered if their children might lose something in this process, but I think they were pleased to find that they not only gained something academically but also understanding and compassion," said Kandy Clinkingbeard, the school librarian who nominated Weeks for the award.

During the first week of school, Weeks brought in hats to explain what her medicine would do to her hair, and when she would need to go for treatment.

The kids loved the hats - everyone tried one on in class. Later, after she buzzed her hair off, the students brought in hats for her - one of which she was wearing Monday - and had a party.

"They were very understanding and always had open arms for me," Weeks said. "The whole time, I was determined to be in the classroom. It was the love of the kids and the twinkle in their eyes that enabled me to teach through chemotherapy."

As much as the school staff and students rallied to support Weeks, she was able to give something back to them.

"We were glad we were able to help her, but she proved to be the inspiration to us," said Richardson Principal Lyle Dunbar.

"She dealt with the cancer like she does with everything - very head-on and with a positive attitude. She maintained the level of professionalism and the expectations she is known for without missing a whole lot - and considering what she went through, that's the ultimate testimony."

As part of the award, Weeks received $100 in gift cards good at OfficeMax, courtesy of both Office Max and Dixon Golf, a recyclable-golf-ball manufacturer in Phoenix.

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To Learn More

Tucson Values Teachers is a nonprofit organization that focuses on retaining, recruiting and rewarding teachers of kindergarten through grade 12. For more information or to nominate a K-12 teacher in Southern Arizona, go to www.tucsonvaluesteachers.org

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at 573-4175 or ahuicochea@azstarnet.com