York teacher rewarded by seeing the light bulb go on

August 21, 2013 

Laura Milem loved watching “the light bulb go on” in the minds of her four younger siblings when they played school together while growing up. Milem always acted the part of teacher, carrying a ruler and wearing fake glasses.

“Even though we were just playing, that sparked an ember that constantly got fed,” said Milem, 58, a special education and exit exam prep teacher at York Comprehensive High School.

The joy of watching the light bulb go off in students’ minds still motivates Milem, who started her public school teaching career in 1995 as a pre-algebra teacher at York Junior High School.

“I love it because every day is a challenge,” said Milem, who last week was named the York school district’s 2013 Teacher of the Year. “I’m not in an assembly line; it’s not set in stone. I feed off my student’s faces.”

Milem’s selection was announced Aug. 14 by York’s 2012 Teacher of the Year Diane Brown during opening ceremonies for the district’s teaching staff at York Comprehensive High School. Eight other school-level teachers of the year also were honored.

Former YCHS principal Diane Howell wrote that Milem “is a miracle worker who touches the lives of every student who passes HSAP and walks across the stage with a diploma.”

Milem grew up in an Army family that moved around often; she attended six different elementary schools. In 1973, she graduated from Spring Valley High School in Columbia. She knew she wanted to study education, and graduated from Winthrop with her degree in 1976.

But she her teaching career actually began with homeschooling her own three children, which Milem did for a decade before she began teaching in York public schools.

“I didn’t want to give up seeing that light bulb go off with them to someone else,” Mielm said. “So I went through a lot of research in what I could do, and I just started homeschooling.”

When Milem began teaching in the York district, her three children entered school there, too. After her first year of teaching, Milem said, she moved to the high school, where she was asked to develop an exit exam prep program to help students pass the test required for South Carolina students to earn a diploma.

In 2003, Milem moved to Travelers Rest High School in Greenville County, where she taught special education for three years before returning to YCHS. She now splits her time between special education classes for learning disabled students and the exit exam prep program.

Milem said she tries to build a relationship with her students from day one to let them know she’s an advocate for them. Because many of her students have found learning to be a challenge in the past, part of Milem’s task is to convince them that they can do it.

“I have to work extra hard to make them understand that there are a lot of people out there in the world who have accomplished a lot who are learning disabled, and you can too,” she said.

Celebrating their accomplishments is part of that effort. Milem said she’s not above pulling out her pom poms and doing a cheer for a student who has done something he or she didn’t think they could do.

“They feel safe in the class,” she said, “and they know that when I do wacky things like that, it’s because I’m acknowledging that they jumped a hurdle. And they’ll kind of go, ‘Oh, Ms. Milem.’ But secretly you know they are pleased.”

Milem is a big believer in the difference a teacher can make.

“We see these kids, at least at the high school, for more hours than their parents do,” she said. “So a lot of times I look at myself more as a surrogate parent than a teacher. For some students, it’s so important to create a relationship with them, where they feel comfortable and want to come to school.”

When students show up every day, she said, that’s her reward. “I read their faces, and that’s when I can tell, did I get through to them. They will sit up straight, throw their shoulders back. Whatever it was that they didn’t think they could do, that’s my reward.”

Milem said one thing she’s like to do as 2013 Teacher of the Year is visit other classrooms to learn from her peers. “I think sometimes as teachers we pigeonhole ourselves in our classsrooms and we don’t think there’s a wealth of information under the same roof. I would go out and observe my peers and see what great things they are doing,” she said.

Milem received a $250 check from Family Trust Federal Credit Union as part of the award.

Milem was named the high school 2013 Teacher of the Year and was chosen for the district-level honor from the school-level teachers of the year. The school-level honorees also were recognized Wednesday.

They are:

• Susan Hopper, English teacher, York Middle School.

• Leesa Parker, gifted and talented teacher, Hunter Street Elementary.

• Deborah Williams, art teacher, Jefferson Elementary School.

• Angelia Green, English language and social studies teacher, York Intermediate School

• Elizabeth Schaefer, first grade teacher, Harold C. Johnson Elementary School.

• Julie Taylor, speech therapist, Cotton Belt Elementary School.

• Gail Harrington, business education teacher, Floyd D. Johnson Technology Center.

• Kim Howe, sixth grade teacher, Hickory Grove-Sharon Elementary School.

School-level Teacher of the Year representatives submit a portfolio that includes a resume, response to professional questions and evidence of professional leadership. They are interviewed by a panel that choses the district-level winner.

All the teacher honorees were honored during a Friday luncheon at Jasmine’s in York, sponsored by Family Trust Federal Credit Union and Robert Winkler’s Edward Jones office in York.

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