Maurin wins Teacher of the Year

Published 10:20 am Wednesday, December 20, 2023

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Merriel Maurin was named the 2023-2024 Teacher of the Year by her peers at W.O. Lance Elementary School. While this is only her second year at the Lanett City School, education has been a lifelong passion.

Maurin’s parents are both educators. They taught at various international schools, with Maurin and her siblings on their heels. She was born in Ecuador, where she spent most of her childhood. Then the family moved to Jordan, where her father started a school for special needs children. 

“School life was my life,” explained Maurin. 

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By this time Maurin already knew she wanted to teach, and in ninth grade, she had figured out her subject.

“I realized I wanted to teach SPED [Special Education]. My family knew this family who had a little boy with Down syndrome, and I had met him and he was really the first kid I had seen kids with disabilities…And after meeting him, I was like, Okay, I want to do this,” Maurin said.

She came back to the States for her undergraduate degree, attending Toccoa Falls University in Georgia. A job became available in Malaysia, where her parents were working at the time, teaching the fifth grade. While Maurin said she loved teaching overseas, she wanted to return to her dream of teaching kids with more severe learning disabilities.

Her master’s program at Messiah University, in Pennsylvania, proved that she made the right choice. They taught her the practical skills, standards, and on-the-job training necessary to become a special education teacher. 

Her experience growing up in international schools allowed her to see how special education was done in other countries. 

“Overseas, there are of course kids with disabilities, but they’re not as much in the public, especially in Jordan and Malaysia. You didn’t really see kids with disabilities. And so growing up, I didn’t have a lot of classmates that had disabilities…I was like, where are these kids and how are they getting an education,” said Maurin.

As a teacher in Malaysia, she did not see many of the students with severe learning disabilities. She did have a student in the school with Williams Syndrome, a genetic syndrome characterized by cardiovascular disease, developmental delays, and learning challenges. Maurin, wanting to fill the gap in special education overseas, even while doing her master’s stateside, did her capstone project on Williams Syndrome. She created an over 80-page manual for teachers who have a student with the syndrome.

“I knew for them if they wanted the student to be successful at that school, they were going to need something,” said Maurin. 

Her grad school also showed her institutional knowledge, like learning how to teach a range of children; of different ages, different needs, and different abilities. As a life-long learner, Maurin realized her schooling would continue when she was a full-time teacher. 

“Through my master’s courses, a lot of the assignments were like, ‘Okay, we need you to do this.’ and I had to say, ‘my international school doesn’t do that…’ I realized if I really want to do SPED, I have got to make the decision to come back, as hard as it was. But then I realized, these kids in Alabama need me just as much as the kids overseas” she explained.

She found Lanett by chance. Her brother lives in Opelika. Wanting to be near family, she searched for every school in a 30-mile radius in need of a special education teacher. She was hired by W.O. Lance to teach kids with special needs from 3 years old to second grade.

“It just felt right. And I love the kids here. They’re just good kids,” Maurin said, smiling at her student Aja Tramell who played nearby. Aja shook her head at the ‘good kids’ comment. Maurin laughed and reassured her that she and her fellow students are in fact, good kids.

Maurin said the adjustment to small-town Alabama after living overseas so long was tough. She had to learn about teaching in a public school, teaching younger kids, living in a new and different place, and making new friends as an adult.

“My coworkers were really good at saying ‘you’re new, let’s take you in’…they were very welcoming. You know, they wanted to know my story,” said Maurin. 

She was shocked to find out many of those coworkers voted her as Teacher of the Year. 

“My mindset was, I’m just the SPED teacher. Because I really think these classroom teachers are the real superheroes in this school… I’m just over here supporting you guys trying to help. They’re the ones that day in and day out, are teaching these kids …I mean, I have the utmost respect for these teachers,” Maurin said.

She continued, “It kind of confirmed like, [I am] making a difference. And even though a lot of days you feel like you’re not making a difference and a lot of days you go home and you’re frustrated, and you’re tired and you’re discouraged…They saw it…I said ‘I’m just the sped teacher’, and they said ‘But look at what you do’.”

When asked what the toughest part of the job was, Maurin quickly said paperwork, laughing. She adds that there is a lot of work SPED teachers do behind the scenes.

“You can teach a skill and it doesn’t seem like it’s sticking and you kind of feel unsuccessful… you’re trying to be a detective on ‘how do I help these kids to learn this skill?’ and I want my kids to be successful. Trying to bridge that gap between where they’re at and where they should be. That’s hard,” Maurin said.

She said a common misconception about special education is that all she does is play with the kids. But actually, it is learning through play. So much goes into the actual playing. Before the interview, Maurin and Trammell were “fishing,” where Maurin would ask the girl to get a certain number, and Aja could use a magnet on a string to “catch” the corresponding number on a board. 

Maurin said the “lightbulb moment” when her kids grasp a skill is the most rewarding part. 

“It could be a month and a half that you’re working on the same skill. You’re singing Head, shoulders, knees and toes for 10 weeks, and then they finally point to their head,” she said.

But, according to Maurin, the best part of her job is the kids. Her goal is to make sure all her students feel loved and safe in Ms. Maurin’s classroom.  

“[Kids with special needs] deserve to be successful. They can be successful. It may take a little bit more time, and they can be a positive influence in their community. That even though they do have a learning disability, they’re just as important as everybody else. They can teach us a lot if you just get to know them,” said Maurin.