Mecklenburg County Public Schools has named special education teacher Michelle Howell the 2019 division-wide Teacher of the Year. Howell teaches third through fifth grade students at La Crosse Elementary School. She considers teaching to be her calling, and she believes that love is a key part of helping her students succeed, especially for those with special needs who may not have the support they need at home.
“A lot of times, some of the kids that need the most support have the least amount in their life, and that’s where I come in,” Howell said. “My classroom is a haven, it’s a safe place for them—emotionally, physically. They can come here, they know they’re going to be safe, they know they’re going to be fed, they know they’re going to be loved, and then, after that, they can hear what I’m saying.”
Howell’s personal teaching philosophy also includes trying to serve as a good role model and believing in her students. She said that children know when their teachers believe in them.
“I believe children will rise to the standard we set for them,” Howell said. “We need to have a high, yet attainable, standard.”
Growing up in Ohio, Howell knew that she wanted to follow in her parents’ footsteps. Her father retired with 32 years of teaching experience, and her mother retired with 36 years.
“From the time I was a young girl, I just knew that I wanted to be a teacher,” Howell said. “It was just something that was just very much a part of me. I saw the impact that my parents had in our small community, and there was just something about it that I was just drawn to.”
Howell earned her bachelor of arts degree in education from Southeastern University. She also holds a master’s degree in education from Indiana University.
She started her career in general education, but after seven years she became a stay-at-home mother. She and her husband, Todd, a vice president at VCU Community Memorial Hospital, have six children, now ranging in age from 13 to 22. Two of their children have autism, and two others have learning disabilities, so, while at home, Howell helped her children with their homework, read books on how to educate children with autism, and learned how to advocate for her children.
When it came time to return to the classroom, Howell knew she wanted to become a special education teacher. She came to La Crosse Elementary three years ago and immediately pursued the licensure for special education.
“I say that it has been the hardest job. I’ve never worked harder than I have in the last three years as a teacher; however, it has been the most rewarding and the most fulfilling,” Howell said.
Howell said that she already had a passion for teaching and had known that teaching was her calling, but she did not realize her calling was for special education until she returned to the classroom.
“A passion that I’ve never experienced has ignited in me, and I love it,” Howell said. “I love it. I love my job.”
As a fellow-parent of special needs children, Howell also loves being able to bring hope to her students’ parents, as she can really understand what they are going through. Her favorite part of teaching is watching her students blossom, regaining the confidence they lost as they struggled in their other classrooms.
“I just try to build them up and love them, first of all, and then help them begin to believe in themselves, and then giving them the small steps that they need to make progress,” Howell said.
Howell also takes her passion for special education beyond her home and classroom. She serves on the board of Families Embracing Autism Together, an organization that promotes autism awareness and provides resources to affected families. She also co-leads a special needs ministry at her family’s church, Cornerstone Assembly of God.
As the division Teacher of the Year, Howell will represent the county in the selection process for regional, and perhaps even state, Teacher of the Year. Howell said she feels it is a great honor to have been chosen from among Mecklenburg’s teachers.
“I have worked with so many amazing teachers, not just in La Crosse, but across our county, and so it is a great honor and a privilege because … I know the caliber of educators that we have in this county, and so I’m just proud to be able to represent us,” Howell said.