Brookshire Elementary School teacher Melissa Pappas always has prided herself on putting her students first — and that attitude and mindset has paid off.
Pappas was named as the Orange County Public Schools Teacher of the Year at the OCPS Stellar Awards on Thursday, Jan. 24, at Rosen Shingle Creek, getting recognized for her work as a K-5 intensive autism teacher who works with children with severe behavioral, functional, and academic needs.
The intensive autism unit at Brookshire Elementary is one of only five of its kind in Orange County and typically serves children who haven’t been successful in a regular ASD setting or general education setting.
“We work with them to give them more appropriate ways of interaction — a lot of what we work on is communication, because very often the source of their behavior is because they need more communication tools,” Pappas said.
Pappas brought those students with extra needs to the forefront this year with a school-wide initiative during Autism Awareness Month. As a result, students performed random acts of kindness and engaged with students with exceptionalities.
Pappas said the recent recognition as OCPS Teacher of the Year is overwhelming.
“I was completely humbled and just honored,” she said.
Brookshire Elementary School Principal Jason Fritz said Pappas’ positive and encouraging attitude brightens up the halls of the school.
“She just has a super attitude — positive and shares information with the regular ed teachers along with the ASD teachers,” Fritz said. “Her attitude and calmness is perfect for that.”
It’s an award made all the more sweet by the fact that Pappas attended Brookshire herself as a little one back in third through five grade. Bringing an OCPS Teacher of the Year award to Brookshire — which hasn’t happened since 1985 — is incredibly gratifying, she said.
“This is a very special place for me — this is like home,” said Pappas, who has taught at Brookshire for four years and worked as a paraprofessional and front office employee for five years. “It was extra special because it was here. Brookshire is my heart, so now, I get to represent the school that I love and the students that I love. It’s just the dream.”
When searching for a career path earlier in life, Pappas always knew she wanted to work with kids. Her mother was an occupational therapist and her father is a quadriplegic, and that taught her the importance of helping others, she said. Pappas became interested in helping children with autism.
“I was always immersed in it, and I always loved it, and I always loved the idea of helping that community and being a voice for that community, which is super important to me,” Pappas said. “My greatest passion is to educate others about students with special needs in an effort to promote acceptance and understanding.”
Above all else, the Brookshire teacher said she hopes that the award sheds more light on the issues children with autism face. It’s important that people understand what autism is, so they can be supportive of those dealing with it, she said.
“The more people are educated about what it is and what it looks like and what you can do to be supportive, the more accepting and inclusive we can make it — which is helpful for their families as well as them,” Pappas said. “I was really grateful to now be able to use (the award) to be a voice for my students.”