Excel Academy of South Shore Teacher of the Year calls Experience at Camelot Education a Metamorphosis
Michelle Smith, Excel Academy of South Shore’s Teacher of the Year, did not expect to be chosen for the honor. In fact, she said she wasn’t aware the school even named a teacher of the year.
“Talk about something that made me totally excited! I mean, it’s my first year here. I didn’t even know they had such a thing,” Smith said. “When they told me, I was like; ‘Really? Well what did I even do?’ But that’s one of the amazing things about Camelot. They celebrate their teachers, their staff, and their students. I love it here.”
Smith has an extensive background in education. She attended Chicago State University, graduating in 1998 with a Bachelor’s degree in biological sciences. She then went on to achieve a Master’s degree in instruction and curriculum from Olivet University, and from there, attained a second degree from Concordia University in supervision and instruction. She was a teacher in Chicago’s public school system for several years before coming to Camelot Excel Academy.
Excel Academy of South Shore is an accelerated school for students who are 15 to 21 years old and are behind in their studies. The program offers an extended day, where students can earn up to five credits per semester and 10 credits per year. Teaching at Excel Academy of South Shore, a high school where she instructs all students – not just a specific grade – was a vastly different experience, she said.
“It was a real metamorphosis. Teaching in traditional public schools just didn’t feed my soul,” she said. “At Camelot, I can focus on my students. I love helping them thrive, and Camelot welcomes that. It’s not the same in a traditional school where the focus is centered around the curriculum. Here, we focus on the curriculum while also supporting the student’s social-emotional needs. Teachers and staff build relationships with their students, and the administrative team is supportive of that approach. If they see a teacher is closely interacting with a troubled student, they say; ‘We got you. Take your time. What support do you need?’ It’s like a family. When I first came here, I didn’t know what to expect, but I love it!”
Smith came to Excel Academy as a substitute teacher for computer science. Her team leader, Teandra Sweet, said after subbing several times, Smith asked to be brought in full-time.
“What was clearly evident about her was that she exuded the same level of supportive willingness that we all have here,” Sweet said. “That’s a real plus for our approach to education. Michelle has a way of reaching the students; she breaks down the curriculum and is hands on. She’s a very nurturing person, not just educationally but emotionally. If she passes a student in the hall and she sees the student is having a problem, she dives right in. These are qualities we look for when hiring new teachers; understanding, passion, and patience.”
Smith, who is very active in her church, stated it’s her faith that energizes her love of education and went on to express how her experiences at Camelot contrasted to her previous work.
“The school where I worked transitioned me from teaching to a role as an administrator, but in that position, I felt distanced from the students. The school leadership thought I was siding with the students and their problems. It’s not siding with them; it’s taking the time to understand them; to get at the root of where they’re coming from. Camelot understands that. Teachers need to meet the students where they are, to listen to them, not just hear them. And we need to ask ourselves the question: are we going to build them up or not?”
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