Michelle VanWambeke of Loves Park has taught special education for six years. She teaches first and second graders at Windsor Elementary. Michelle was surprised to be a nominee, let alone a finalist because of the type of class she teaches. She was nervous to be in the spotlight, but decided “this program and the work that I do is deserving of the exposure and recognition the Golden Apple Foundation can bring to it.” Michelle feels there are two reasons people become teachers: one – to honor a past teacher who made them feel valued; or two — a past teacher caused a negative experience making you want to do better. Her reason is the latter. After years as a paraprofessional and as a single mother of three still working full-time, she earned her teaching degree. Teachers write individual lesson plans for each student in Structured Teaching Programs (STP), so Michelle writes 9 different lesson plans daily “to help my students work toward individual education (IEP) goals as well as functional skills.” Success in STP “requires collaboration and communication to establish practices that place high expectations on my students while providing them appropriate learning opportunities.” She partners with occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, families, general education and STP teachers, nurses and social workers. Observers were impressed with how she worked seamlessly with up to six paraprofessionals. Michelle’s former principal (and 2022 GA Outstanding Principal), Melissa Yuska wrote, “When I think of an educator who exemplifies excellence … and someone who has a passion for helping all students reach their unlimited potential, Michelle is at the top of that list.” Yuska noted, “Some students are verbal, some are non-verbal and some use devices to communicate ….. There are days when her students communicate through hitting, yet she always works to teach them that is not okay, in a meaningful and respectful manner.” Speech-language pathologist Angela Carlson says, “If you were to walk into Michelle’s classroom at just about any given time, you would find students who are happy and are displaying increased motivation, thus increasing their learning and progress.” She added that Michelle “often knows what the students need before they seem to”!