Live! Top Teacher Week: Erin Palonen From Griswold Middle School
The final teacher to be nominated for a chance to be the Top Teacher Week winner was Erin Polonen, a special education teacher from Griswold, Connecticut, who has changed the lives of countless students by putting them on skates and showing them they belong.
This year was Palonen’s first year at Griswold Middle School, having previously taught at Griswold High School, where she taught students with metal disabilities.
“They changed my life for the better,” said Palonen of her eight years teaching at the high school.
Erin Palonen Forms Special Bond With Katie
Katie was one of Palonen’s students at the high school. Katie’s mother said her daughter was diagnosed with autism in 1992 and the doctors told her Katie may never have meaningful relationships, she may never learn to use the toilet and she may lack some of the skills needed for living a normal life.
Over the years, Katie’s mother said she watched as her daughter made improvements but as soon as it was time for high school, Katie’s mother was scared. She did not think her daughter would be ready for high school. She thought her daughter would get lost in the sea of kids roaming the halls.
Then Katie met her new teacher, Erin Palonen.
“She was the cutest little cucumber,” said Palonen looking back on the first time they met. “She was a darling little angel that was scared to death of me.”
Her mother wasn’t too keen on Palonen the first time they met either. She was nervous this women, barely out of college and taking her first job as a special education teacher, wasn’t going to be able to help her child.
As the months rolled on though, Palonen won over the hearts of Katie and her mother.
“She brought light into where darkness once resided,” she said of Palonen coming into Katie’s life.
Erin Palonen Readies Her Class For the Real World
Palonen said she wanted her students to be ready for anything they would encounter in life so she got them out of the classroom and into the real world. She took them to Disney World, to museums and she even took them to prom. She borrowed her mother’s Lincoln Town Car, picked up her students for pictures and a dinner and then headed off to prom.
“I want them to know I’m more than just their teacher,” she said.
Erin Palonen Puts Her Students On Skates
Then she had the crazy idea of putting her class on skates. She told the parents her idea, most of whom thought she was insane, and then gave the kids some ice skating lessons and let them do their thing. Within months, Katie’s room was filled with speed skating trophies from different Special Olympics programs.
Erin Palonen Invites Class To Her Wedding
Erin Palonen loves her class so much she even invited them to her wedding.
“At that time, it was the most incredible thing happening in my life,” she said. “I wanted the people closest to me to share in the moment.”
Erin Palonen Heading To Las Vegas
To thank her for all she has done for so many students, Kelly and Michael presented Palonen with 30 Surface Tablets from Microsoft to use in her classroom and they gave her a seven night stay at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas where she will be able to enjoy all the amenities of the hotel, all expenses paid, like a helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon.
Kelly Ripa also heard Palonen was a big fan of Celine Dion so she gave her tickets to see Celine Dion live in Las Vegas, as well as backstage passes and a VIP pass to meet Celine in person.
You can vote for your favorite teacher from the past week starting now until Monday afternoon. The winner of the Top Teacher Week will win a 2014 Ford Escape and the school will receive $25,000 to use as they see fit.