2019 OUTSTANDING TEACHER OF AMERICA
American Sign Language Teacher
Pinole High School
Michele Lamons grew up in the East San Francisco Bay Area and attended CSU, Sacramento, where she earned her BA in English and her Masters Degree in English Literature and Composition. She got her Single Subject Teaching Credential from CSU, East Bay in Hayward, California. Michele also had the opportunity to study English Literature abroad in Middlesex, England and Spanish for two summers in Mexico.
Michele began her career teaching remedial English and Reading classes at Pinole High School to the lowest level of students on campus. She found she truly enjoyed working with students with the highest needs and was surprised to discover that many students had been led to believe they were not capable of working at higher levels and learned to be content with doing the less challenging work in order to “get by” with as little effort as possible. Michele also discovered many students were much more capable than she was told or that her students or their other teachers believed. The more she learned about them, she quickly concluded her students actually did want to learn. She discovered all students needed was to have someone who believed in their abilities. Discovering this so early in her career paved the way to help students exceed their personal expectations and find the academic successes they and others never thought possible.
Michele also determined early in her career if she was going to help students, she needed to up her game, dig in and find ways to get even the most reluctant students inspired and motivated. She challenged herself to consistently seek ways to be better at her craft. Michele found students responded well to her sense of humor and of fun. Secondly, she found students warmed up more quickly when she showed interest in what interested them. Once she deciphered this, she began to incorporate their interests into the readings and discussions in the classroom. For example, she used their music to study poetry and selected literature to read that dealt with the lives of minority teenagers. Slowly, her students began to come around and began to enjoy the process of learning. Those first few years imprinted in her an understanding that students want to learn and can learn when teachers believe in their abilities if the materials are relevant to their lives and cultures.
It was those first few years that colored her long lasting philosophy of teaching. Michele learned early to trust her beliefs that every student wants to, and can, learn what she teaches. The key to unlocking their potential is finding material that has meaning to their lives and experiences. She created a wide variety of interactive activities that made students curios about what might happen next, which contributed to her effectiveness and her students retention of information. Her use of humor and having a light hearted approach sets a tone in the classroom that makes the environment more comfortable and safe for students and, ultimately, encourages their involvement.
Michele also discovered that students need to be pushed and challenged to succeed. However, she is careful to have expectations that are reasonable and match their capabilities in order to insure they experience early success. Thus, she designs assignments with incremental increased levels of difficulty, followed by immediate positive feedback.
As Michele’s career progressed, she was asked to teach the more advanced honors English classes and then the AP English Language and Composition class. However, teaching the upper level courses did not change her philosophy. She actively recruited many of the students she had in her lower level classes and convinced them they were able to handle the more advanced material. She promised them she would help them face the challenge, and it worked. Enrollment grew in the both the honors and the AP classes. She found great rewards seeing such positive growth, particularly with the students she taught in regular English classes.
In subsequent years, Michele became the sponsor for the Forensics team and used the same philosophy of recruitment. She quickly drew in all levels of students and found ways to introduce them to a skill that would affect their entire academic careers, as well as pay dividends in whatever they might choose as a career. She saw shy and quiet and withdrawn kids begin to blossom into leaders with a sense of self confidence they had never experienced. Over the years, she has seen many students go on to major universities and who are now working in high profile jobs. These students credit the experiences they had in Speech and Debate for getting through college and for their success in their work.
As high school graduation and college admission requirements began to change, the Pinole student population also changed. Students began choosing Spanish classes rather than French. Consequently, the French enrollments dropped to the point where there were no longer enough students to retain even one section of French. Eventually, the class was dropped from the World Language Curriculum and French was replaced with American Sign Language. Michele was the only person in the school or district qualified to teach ASL. Even though English was the subject that ignited her passion, Michele once had a third grade teacher who was an interpreter, and got Michele interested in learning sign language at a very young age. She started her first year teaching ASL with only 20 students and one level. Since that time the program has grown to four levels and with well over one hundred students.
Michele also makes every effort to get the parents of all of her students involved so they can understand what their kids are doing. She sets up times to interact with parents, beyond the traditional open houses. She invites her students to bring their parents to a buffet dinner that she sets up to help her get to know their parents and families, which also helps her to understand what might be going on in their lives. This also allows time for students to demonstrate to their parents what they have learned and which really helps parents see how their kids are doing in school and to be proud of what they are learning.
After her many years of teaching high school kids, teaching continues to be Michele’s passion and her life’s reward. By teaching, she finds she is able to give back what she was given when growing up. Michele still remains in contact with her 3rd grade teacher and continuously reminds her of the lasting impact she has had on her life. Michele's goal is to always impact her students in a positive way, being certain to NEVER have a negative impact on a child’s life.