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December 11, 2012

Education majors get lesson from 2012 Teacher of the Year

Park urges future teachers: never give up on a student

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — See the potential instead of the problem.

It’s how teachers can change lives and make a difference, said Melanie Park, 2012 Indiana Teacher of the Year.

It is a lesson she learned — and shared Monday with future educators at Indiana State University — from Max McQueen, one of her teachers when she was a student at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis.

She came into McQueen’s class very shy, refusing to make eye contact. It was a product of her past. Park’s parents divorced when she was just 4 years old. She had attended seven different schools, and had lived in a tent for a short time “because she and her mother had nowhere to go.”

“[McQueen] didn’t let me make excuses. He didn’t just care about me, he believed in me,” she told education majors Monday at Indiana State University in the Teachers of Tomorrow Advancing Learning program.

Teachers have to look beyond a student’s home life, Park said. Teachers have to encourage and let students know “you cannot use your past as an excuse for failure. You can’t change your past, but you can change your future,” said Park, a quote she learned from McQueen.

Take time to build a relationship with students, she said, “and never, ever give up” on a student.

Park graduated from high school in 1989 and has a bachelor and master’s degree from Indiana University. She is now working on a doctorate at IU. She has been a teacher for 19 years. She is also married to a teacher.

She currently works as a reading remediation teacher at Riverview Middle School in Huntington Community School Corp.

“Teaching is a lifestyle, it is not a profession,” she said. As an example, when at the beach, Park gathers shells for her students who may never see a beach. She is always getting things for her classroom, she told the ISU students.

Teachers, Park said, should think of the behavior of students and situations that could happen when considering placement of students in the classroom: think, pair and share. Teachers also should consider students’ attitudes, how they get along and how to best pair students to allow learning.

In addition, teachers must make friends. Get to know secretaries, janitors and administrators at your school. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help, she said.

Park told ISU students of her trip in April to Washington, D.C., as part of the national teacher award presentation, which also honored individual state teacher of the year recipients. Sandra Day O’Connor, retired justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, told the teachers that “to make a difference, you must first make friends.”

Park showed a photograph of her and President Barack Obama shaking hands. She said her middle school students had asked that she not embarrass them by doing something like falling down while in the nation’s capital.

An embrace came, she told ISU students, as the president thought Park was unsteady as she stood on a riser as he walked past her.

“Oh, please don’t fall,” the president told her.

“That was it. That was the conversation,” Park chuckled.

Park told of several life events that helped shape her work as a teacher. One event was from her stepfather, who did not make it past the eighth grade. He could not read his favorite bedtime story to Park. Before his death of cancer while Park was a sophomore in college, her stepfather told her not to let any students leave her classroom until she was sure they could read bedtime stories.

“That experience inspired me to be an educator,” she told ISU students. “Don’t underestimate the power and the impact that you have on the future. That is an opportunity you will have every day.”

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