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Teachers of the year: Shining a spotlight on impactful educators

Linda Ratliff with her Teacher of the Year award from the Michigan Council for Exceptional Children.

Emily Blanchard, Oakland County Teacher of the Year, with some of her students.

Every day, teachers walk into classrooms to dedicate themselves to student growth. But being a teacher is about so much more than academic instruction. It’s about serving as a support system, listener and role model.

Ask anyone to recall a teacher who made an impact, and you’ll likely find that every person has a story to tell. Appreciating educators means more than acknowledging them once a year. It means ensuring support for them to develop their work in helping students learn.

In honor of May’s National Teacher Appreciation Week, educators across Michigan are getting recognized for serving as teaching superheroes, going above and beyond to make an impact on their students, schools and communities.

Linda Ratliff has been an educator for 40 years, and was recently named Teacher of the Year by the Michigan Council of Exceptional Children. Currently, Ratliff works as a teacher consultant for East China School District, where she has spent the last 26 years helping students with disabilities enter adult life. Her students range in their abilities from emotionally disturbed, cognitively impaired, autistic, learning disabled or students who have hearing or vision problems.

“I think people often forget that kids with special needs are first, kids,” Ratliff explains. “They have wants, needs, challenges and goals just like anyone else. It’s about what we can do to help them succeed and get that diploma.”

Her favorite part of the job is exposing students to workplace learning. “I have students who want to become veterinarians assisting in surgery,” she says. “I was able to place a student with cerebral palsy with dreams of becoming a pharmacist at a local pharmacy. How many high school students get those kinds of opportunities?”

So, what makes a great teacher? Some traits are obvious, but others are not.

Great teachers have patience and think on their feet. But underneath the basics, is the value of showing students daily how much they mean to the teacher. In this way teachers develop the relationships that can change lives.

“First and foremost, great teachers want to know their students as humans, not just receptacles of knowledge,” says Emily Blanchard, a teacher at Harbor High School – an alternative high school designed for students who have not been successful in the traditional high school setting. Blanchard is finishing up her 25th year of teaching this spring.

“My brothers were both special needs students, so that greatly influenced me to pursue a special education endorsement,” Blanchard explains.

Ratliff’s main guiding principle is that it’s all about the student, no matter how many administrators, teachers or parents are pulling her in different directions.

“Two things are key to a great teacher – the ability to try something different to help your students understand, and engaging with your students,” says Ratliff. “If you have a relationship with your students, they’re going to learn and respond better.”

Megan Wert, a fifth grade teacher at Washington Woods Middle School in Holt, has been teaching for over 10 years, and draws inspiration from her students daily.

“These students are so talented, and I love knowing that sometimes I can draw that out,” Wert explains. On the other end of the spectrum, Wert has students who work endlessly just to keep afloat. “Watching their persistence is so inspiring.”

For Blanchard, her students are also her greatest inspiration. “When I see them come to school every day and perform despite personal struggles, I’m in awe,” Blanchard explains. “Their dedication motivates me to give them my all.”

Being a teacher in today’s world means wearing many hats, from teacher to friend to guardian. There’s a lot of pressure that comes along with that and, sometimes, not much appreciation. However, most teachers can agree that the reward of impacting students’ lives in a positive way is worth it.

Wert’s greatest reward is having students greet her with a smile even when she’s not their teacher anymore. “It’s having students laugh with you, hug you. It’s that day when someone who struggles finally connects the dots or behaviorally has a breakthrough,” says Wert.

“It’s great watching them grow, develop and then succeed as adults,” says Ratliff. “I recently had a student tell me I was like her second mom. We don’t get that appreciation every day in education, but when we do, it lasts for 10 years.”

It’s clear that teachers give us so much – a boost of confidence when we really need one, extra help when we’re having trouble and a welcoming presence when everything else seems out of control.

Thank you for the permanent impact you’re making in the lives of your students.
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