FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — North Forsyth Middle School teacher Maleah Stewart walked into the Forsyth County Schools Celebration of Excellence not expecting to leave a winner.
However, she was pleasantly surprised March 10 when her name was called as the 2017 Teacher of the Year.
“I did not think I was going to be here, honestly,” Stewart said. “My daytime family is my kids, teachers, administrators and community parents. I am surrounded by the most amazing educators, so to be chosen is breathtaking.”
Stewart came to Forsyth County in 2006 and is in her 17th year of being a special education teacher. She became a speech language pathologist because of her personal experience growing up with a family member who had social anxiety and deficits in communication.
She talked about her childhood and how she was a quiet student who made good grades and never got in trouble. Stewart kept her brother a secret to her peers as her brother was always in trouble.
“We all have those students who stand out in our minds, who change our minds and who we’ll never forget,” Stewart said. “I know how essential it is to build relationships with kids. It’s what I strive to do every day as an education. My brother taught me everything about being an educator and how it all comes down to relationships.”
She encouraged her fellow teachers to get to know their students including the kids who act out but especially the ones who don’t.
“I believe really getting to know our kids is our No. 1 job as educators,” Stewart said. “I know I am not all that special. But I had some teachers who taught me the joys and the importance of establishing relationships with others. I stand here before you right now only because of those relationships.”
From training sessions for parents to working with teachers on innovative lessons, Stewart has been able to find creative ways to help every student communicate, regardless of disability, said School Board Chairperson Kristin Morrissey.
“Since joining the FCS family in 2006, Maleah has demonstrated her passion for making connections by growing strong relationships with not only her students, but also with parents, other teachers, administrators and the community,” Morrissey said. “Through these relationships, she can create endless possibilities for her students.”
She has found creative ways to teach her students from developing an app, creating a muscle twitch switch for a student with progressive motor degeneration and establishing a community service club for students with autism.
“I am more than just their teacher,” Stewart said. “I am their advocate, their support, their mentor, their confidant, their cheerleader and their biggest fan. By embracing innovation and utilizing my social connections, I have found that every barrier to effective communication can be improved given passion, creativity and teamwork.”
The other finalists for 2017 were Maggie Tompkins from Shiloh Point Elementary School and AP language/American Literature and world studies teacher Michele Dugan from Forsyth Central High School.
Every school in the county chooses a teacher of the year, and those choices are narrowed down to a group of semifinalists for district honors. From there, a community panel picks the top three and conducts an observation before choosing the winner, according to Forsyth Superintendent Jeff Bearden.
“We have so many talented teachers in Forsyth County. We are so blessed,” Bearden said. “We have almost 3,000 teachers. So to be named Teacher of the Year at the school is a huge honor, and to reach this level in an incredible honor. But to be the Forsyth County Teacher of the Year must be a humbling experience because you know you’re surrounded by so much talent.”