Published Online: May 3, 2011

Updated: March 24, 2012

National Teacher of the Year Sees 'Abilities, Not Disabilities'

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pose with teachers during a ceremony to honor the 2011 National Teacher of the Year, and State Teachers of the Year on May 3 at the White House. Michelle Shearer, the 2011 National Teacher of the Year, is at front row center, in front of the President.
—Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

In a sun-drenched Rose Garden ceremony this morning, President Barack Obama presented Michelle Shearer, a chemistry teacher at Urbana High School in Ijamsville, Md., with the 2011 National Teacher of the Year award.

The State Teachers of the Year, the pool from which Shearer was chosen, stood behind the president, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Shearer herself for the brief ceremony.

According to her application materials for the award, Shearer first became interested in teaching after volunteering at a school for the deaf while a pre-medical student at Princeton University. She went on to earn a bachelor’s in chemistry and was one of the few Princeton graduates in her class to earn a teaching certificate. She is certified in both chemistry and special education.

Shearer spent four of her 14 classroom years at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick. At MSD, she was the first teacher to offer Advanced Placement Chemistry in the school's 135-year history. She conducted the class exclusively in American Sign Language.

Shearer currently teaches AP Chemistry at Urbana.

President Barack Obama stands with the 2011 National Teacher of the Year Michelle Shearer  during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 3.
President Barack Obama stands with the 2011 National Teacher of the Year Michelle Shearer during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 3.
—Charles Dharapak/AP

In his speech at the ceremony, President Obama said that Shearer’s "specialty is taking students that are normally underrepresented in science … and helping them discover the scientist within."

When she began teaching AP Chemistry at Urbana in 1997, there were 11 students enrolled in the course, Obama noted. Now there are 92. In addition, Shearer’s students have an approximately 90 percent pass rate on the AP Chemistry exam.

"America can only be as strong in this century as the education we provide our students," the president said. "We desperately need more Michelles out there.”

President Obama also mentioned his goal of preparing 100,000 science, technology, engineering, and math teachers over the next decade, and reiterated a call to Congress to “quickly fix No Child Left Behind.”

Making Science Accessible

After accepting the silver apple awarded her, Shearer—a firm and captivating speaker—acknowledged her current and former students, who she said have taught her “to always see abilities, not disabilities.” Teachers have the difficult task of meeting the diverse needs of all students, she said, and must do so with “love, compassion, and dedication.”

In an interview after the ceremony, Shearer said that over the next year, while traveling the country on a speaking tour, she plans to promote STEM education and the importance of “making it accessible to students with special needs, minorities, and young women.”

Her current AP Chemistry classes have as many female students as males, she noted. Over the years, she has successfully accommodated students with learning disabilities, low vision, attention problems, and Asperger’s Syndrome in her advanced classes. “It’s about getting students to believe in themselves and take ownership,” she said.

Shearer said she also hopes to "elevate the level of the teaching profession." When asked how that goal—one Secretary Duncan has commonly cited as well—can be achieved, she said: “We don’t share enough of the positive stories. If you sit down with any teacher, they can tell you the great things they’re doing. We have to be willing to take the time to listen to those positive stories.”

In her own life, she has frequently encountered people’s low regard for the teaching profession and seen the need for change. "I’m a Princeton grad, and people like to remind me that I could have done whatever I wanted," she said. "I tell them I’m doing exactly what I want to do."

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