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North Forsyth Middle speech pathologist named Teacher of the Year
1WEB teacher of the year best shot
The 2017 Teacher of the Year, Maleah Stewart, gives a speech during the Forsyth County Schools Celebration of Excellence luncheon. - photo by Jim Dean

Other honors

• Mentor of the Year, Cassandra Chiapperini
• Friend of the Year, Purposity
• Volunteer of the Year, Big Frog Custom T-Shirts and More
• Silver Program of the Year, Cross Church and The DOJO Cumming
• Gold Program of the Year, Citizens Bank and Walmart on Hwy. 369
• Don Hendricks Partnership Award, The Morrow Community Foundation

NORTH FORSYTH -- Growing up, Maleah Stewart never wanted to be a teacher.

“I loved pretending to be Bruce Banner of ‘The Incredible Hulk’ as well as Daisy Duke and Rosco P. Coltrane from ‘The Dukes of Hazzard,’” the North Forsyth Middle School speech pathologist wrote in her 2017 Teacher of the Year application essay. “So how in the world do I find myself in my 17th year as a special education teacher?”

Though she may not have wanted to teach, the profession suits her, a fact made evident Friday afternoon at Forsyth County Schools’ Celebration of Excellence luncheon, where Stewart was named the 2017 Teacher of the Year — the first special needs educator to be bestowed the honor since at least 2002.

The March 10 event, which honored educators and partners in the business community throughout the county, was held at the Lanier Technical College Forsyth Conference Center.

Aside from celebrating the overall winner, the annual event recognizees all Forsyth County Teachers of the Year — one from each of the county’s 35 brick-and-mortar elementary, middle and high schools.

School Teachers of the Year were announced in September and in December, 18 of those teachers moved on to the semifinalist round. After completing interviews with a selection committee, the 18 semifinalists were narrowed down to three: one for each school level.

In early February, Superintendent Jeff Bearden and others surprised the three finalists — Shiloh Point Elementary School kindergarten teacher Maggie Tompkins, Forsyth Central High School Advanced Placement English language teacher Michele Dugan and North Middle’s Stewart — with flowers and congratulations.

Stewart will now represent Forsyth County in the Georgia Teacher of the Year program, a competition that ultimately sends one state representative to the national level.

Stewart, who joined Forsyth County Schools in 2006, has spent the last two-and-a-half years at North Middle where she teaches students with special needs.

“Maleah has been able to find creative ways to help every student communicate, regardless of disability,” said Kristin Morrissey, chairwoman of the Forsyth County Board of Education. “In her role, she has the chance to find new ways to create personalized learning opportunities for each student.

“As a child, Maleah was a quiet little girl, but she had teachers who encouraged her to experience the joy of establishing relationships with others. This led her to discover she was a natural communicator with a passion for making connections. She found her ‘spark’ as a special education teacher for students with communication challenges.”

Stewart said at times her career choice was a struggle, given how often she moved between locations.

“When I started out 17 years ago, I was an itinerant therapist and I only [spent] a little time at each school,” she said. “Travelling between schools, you never really become part of it; I think most speech language pathologists would [understand] that, because it’s something that we all struggle with at times in our careers, is just being seen as a fellow teacher.”

Forsyth County was different from the start, she said.

“When I made the move to Forsyth County, it became a home for me,” Stewart said. “From the moment I walked [through] the doors, I became a part of this family.”

In April, 10 finalists for the Georgia Teacher of the Year program will be announced.

Two years ago, Marlo Miranda, automotive technology teacher at Forsyth Central High School, was named a finalist for the statewide recognition.