Spotlight: 10 Questions for Melanie Cole (PA '17)February 21, 2018
Special education teacher Melanie Cole (PA ’17) loves helping her senior students bring their future dreams to life as they prepare to leave high school: “These are some of my favorite conversations.” She received her Milken Educator Award at Slippery Rock Area High School on October 31, 2017.
1. What went through your mind when you heard your name called at your surprise notification?
Melanie Cole: My first reaction was disbelief. Moments before Jane [Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards] announced my name, I remember speaking to a coworker and rattling off names of who the winner might be—my name was not on my list! When it happened I was totally overwhelmed. Then I remember people telling me to get up. As I approached the front of the gym I received a bear hug from one of my students and felt so much gratitude for being able to be in that moment.
2. How did your students respond to your Milken Award? What impact has it had on them?
Melanie: My students in our life skills classroom had the biggest smiles on their faces when they heard my name. They had participated in the program, helping to reveal the amount of the cash prize, so they were already on top of the world. I have gotten many congratulations from our staff and students.
I also teach a class of seniors first period every day. Their congratulations and words of wisdom were humorous and memorable. Most of them wanted to know when we were going shopping or where I was taking them. The Milken Award shows students that when you work hard for what you want, appreciation and fulfillment follow.
3. How did you end up in education?
Melanie: From a young age I went into elementary schools with my mother, who worked in education. I remember standing in front of the classroom after school and pretending I was the classroom teacher. My mother has had a significant influence on my career choice as a teacher. As a student at Hampton High School, I had opportunities to spend some time with the special education students, as well as several special need camps and Special Olympics. Through these unique experiences, I found that I was comfortable with and passionate about this population, and that’s why I decided to go into special education when I enrolled in La Roche College.
4. Who are your role models as an educator?
Melanie: Many teachers, administrators, and individuals during my education and teaching career have had a huge impact on how I have developed as an educator and a person. Educators who have passion are my role models. When educators are willing to step outside the comfort zone of “typical teaching,” reaching into their own unique style of teaching, they are best able to teach to the needs of today’s students.
I have had the opportunity to work alongside many amazing teachers, but one in particular has taught me how to push and strive to be even better. Christine Mooney is a wellness instructor at Slippery Rock High School. She has been teaching here in the building for 10 years. In the past few years, she and I have worked together to create a new culture of kindness in the Slippery Rock School District. Chris has shown me who I really want to be as an educator and as a person. She strives for the best for her students and for the staff she works with. I am honored to work with so many inspirational teachers, especially Chris.
5. What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?
Melanie: My first year of teaching, 11 years ago, I taught learning support reading, science, and math to 9th- through 12th-graders at Slippery Rock High School. I was so energized to get into my very own classroom, with my very own students. The students here at Slippery Rock are, and always have been, some of the best students around. I remember how welcoming and inviting my students were when I first came to SRHS. I sometimes go and sit in my old classroom and reminiscence about the beginning of my teaching career and how fortunate I am to still be in such a remarkable profession.
6. What are students most likely to remember about their time in your class?
Melanie: I currently teach a transition class to our seniors. A lot of our time is spent talking about their futures and dreams. These are some of my favorite conversations. One of the goals for the class is for them to define who they are as a person. We spend time doing career projects and personality assessments, as well as giving them experiences outside of the classroom, including work-based learning, job shadowing, and volunteering opportunities.
I hope my students remember the times they were pushed outside of their comfort zone and figured out who they truly are and want to be. To quote Rashedur Ryan Rahman: “Your comfort zone is a place where you keep yourself in a self-illusion and nothing can grow there but your potentiality can grow only when you can think and grow out of that zone.”
7. What’s your biggest challenge in the classroom?
Melanie: In my current position I am only in the classroom for one period a day. My additional responsibilities are to develop, organize, and maintain transition programs. My biggest challenge in my current position is realizing the dreams and aspirations for the program. Sometimes we have to take several steps backwards before we can go forward. Prioritizing and accomplishing my responsibilities while maintaining a high standard is always a challenge, but one that I value.
8. How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Melanie: I would like to disperse some of the money into the organizations and clubs we are attempting to establish here at Slippery Rock. I am continuing to develop the community-based program at the district, through which students gain opportunities in local employment settings. This program needs things to succeed, especially a vehicle.
On a personal level, my husband and I are expecting in May 2018, so we are going to put some money aside to start an educational fund for our newborn.
9. What would you say to a student who expresses interest in a career in education?
Melanie: Best decision of your life! In my opinion, no profession is more rewarding. Selecting a career in education not only allows you to enrich the lives of your students, but also allows you personally to continue to grow as an individual. I have had several students decide to pursue education, especially special education, because they have had the opportunity to get involved and experience firsthand the impact and advantages of becoming an educator.
10. What’s your definition of success?
Melanie: Success equals happiness. When we fall asleep at night, knowing that we have given our best efforts to achieve the goals we set for ourselves, we have attained success. I do believe success looks different for everyone. Reaching stepping-stones and heading in the right direction—these are levels of success I try to accomplish every day.
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