Lacey’s Spring custodian wins Morgan County support person of year
By Deangelo McDaniel
For the Enquirer
Social studies was more than homework for Sylvia Michel and her children.
“This was my classroom time to learn more about America,” the mother of three said about the time she spent helping her children with social studies homework. “We learned together, and when I messed up, they got on me.”
Michel, 35, became a naturalized American citizen in December. Tuesday morning at Lacey’s Spring School, where she has been a custodian for five years, a crew from the district’s central office presented Michel with flowers, balloons and a prize package before announcing that she was the districtwide support person of the year.
Lauren Lang Harrison, a special needs teacher at West Morgan Elementary, was selected as the system’s top elementary teacher, while Spanish teacher Jessica Spencer was tapped as the secondary teacher of the year.
“We have outstanding teachers and employees throughout the school system, and these represent the best of the best,” Superintendent Bill Hopkins Jr. said.
Patrick Patterson, director of secondary curriculum and school improvements, said a committee of former teachers of the year and school administrators selected the districtwide winners.
“They receive applications with no names on them,” he said.
Principal Matt Adams and counselor Jessica Barnes said Michel is more than a custodian at Lacey’s Spring. Both said she has helped the school’s growing Hispanic population transition and been available during several crisis situations.
“Sylvia has been instrumental in welcoming non-English speaking families,” Barnes said.
Adams said she is an “incredible ambassador” for the Hispanic community and students and “offers suggestions and ideas for ways we can better serve that community.”
Michel, who is bilingual and has three children at Lacey’s Spring School, said she was 2 when her mother brought the family from Mexico to America in search of a better life. Michel lived in California until coming to Alabama in 2004.
She couldn’t remember the year, but after her younger sister became a naturalized citizen, Michel said she started to prepare for the citizenship test. She said she learned a lot while helping her children with social studies and history homework.
“As they were learning, I was learning,” Michel said.
She said it took her longer to go through the citizenship process because she couldn’t afford a lawyer and learned how to file the paperwork herself. Michel said she prepared for a 100-question test, but got five questions during the writing and reading test.
“I got all five correct,” she said.
She said it was a big relief when she received the letter telling her she would take the naturalization oath in Montgomery. Michel said the American flag she received during the ceremony is a prized possession.
“I’ll keep it forever,” she said.
Michel worked several years as a translator for Morgan County Schools during registration and parent-teacher conference before getting a job as a custodian five years ago.
Child of educators
Pursuing a career in education was never in doubt for Harrison and Spencer, although for different reasons.
Harrison, 30, is the daughter of a retired school administrator and elementary teacher.
“Both instilled in me a love for learning at a young age,” she said.
Her lover for special education, however, didn’t develop until she was a high school student in Hartselle doing peer tutoring.
West Morgan Elementary Principal Becky Burt said Harrison’s love, care and patience for the student population she serves is phenomenal.
“She not only teaches her students, but she mothers them,” Burt said.
Parent Ashley Jones said Harrison educates her students about life and teaches them about “what character means and how to be kind, helpful, responsible humans.” She said Harrison exceeded “every standard of what a parent would hope for in a good teacher.”
Laurie Keaty has worked six years as a paraprofessional in Harrison’s classroom. She said she advocates every day for her students, some who are nonverbal.
“Lauren has strong academic expectations and shows her students every day that she believes they can succeed,” Keaty said.
Passion to teach
Spencer, 29, didn’t grow up in a family of educators but knew as early as kindergarten she wanted to teach. She’s been a Spanish teacher at West Morgan High since 2014 and has what Principal Keith Harris called “tremendous passion, enthusiasm and consistency” for teaching.
Spencer was 9 when her family moved from Pennsylvania to Alabama. She played school with her younger sister, and her art teacher in high school helped fuel her passion to teach.
“He encouraged me to do what I wanted to do,” she said.
Senior Elizabeth Snow Staehling said Spencer is more than a teacher and she recalled her first encounter with Spencer when she enrolled at West Morgan in seventh grade.
Staehling said she had registered for a talent show with her older brother. On the day of the show, she said she was looking for her brother “in a school that I was in no way familiar with.”
Staehling said she broke down in the hall outside Spencer’s classroom. “She came out of her room and pieced me back together,” she recalled.
Emily Davis, who worked one year at West Morgan with Spencer, said Spencer is an advocate in and out of school for her students.
“I have witnessed her spend multiple hours after school talking with students that are going through hard times and giving them advice on how to handle their situations,” Davis said about Spencer.