Special Education

National Teacher of the Year Sees ‘Abilities, Not Disabilities’

By Liana Loewus — May 03, 2011 2 min read
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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Includes updates and/or revisions.

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.

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.”


School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education The Pros and Cons of AI in Special Education
AI can make special educators' jobs easier by handling paperwork and serving as an adaptive tool. But there are privacy and other concerns.
9 min read
Student being assisted by AI
Nicole Xu for Education Week
Special Education From Our Research Center What Happens for High Schoolers Who Need More Than 4 Years?
Districts work to serve older students longer than four years to plan for a changing career world.
6 min read
Older student facing the city, younger version is being swept away.
Nicole Xu for Education Week
Special Education These Grants Could Help Students With Disabilities Access Jobs, Training
The Ed. Dept. is investing $236 million to help with transitions to careers and post-secondary education.
3 min read
Collage of a woman in a wheelchair on a road leading to a large dollar sign. In the woman's hair is a ghosted photo of hands on a laptop.
Collage by Gina Tomko/Education Week + Getty
Special Education Download DOWNLOADABLE: Does Your School Use These 10 Dimensions of Student Belonging?
These principles are designed to help schools move from inclusion of students with disabilities in classrooms to true belonging.
1 min read
Image of a group of students meeting with their teacher. One student is giving the teacher a high-five.
Laura Baker/Education Week via Canva