Horry Teacher of the Year: ‘Special needs students are smart and determined’

Shannon Peterson's reaction to being named Teacher of the Year

Shannon Peterson, preschool special education teacher at Ocean Bay Elementary, was named the 2016-17 Horry County Teacher of the Year during a gala Tuesday night.
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Shannon Peterson, preschool special education teacher at Ocean Bay Elementary, was named the 2016-17 Horry County Teacher of the Year during a gala Tuesday night.

For Shannon Peterson, every day is a new adventure and every night ends with a smile.

The preschool special education teacher at Ocean Bay Elementary School watched her mother work with an autistic boy as a child, fascinated by how the boy was so skilled at taking apart a VHS player but didn’t even know his own name. That fascination led to two degrees in special education and a county-wide award.

I just have a passion for making sure our kids are getting the service and the attention they need.

Shannon Peterson, 2016-17 Horry County Teacher of the Year

She spends her days teaching 3- to 5-year-olds with special needs in her classroom currently outfitted like a big red barn. She works with children on the autism spectrum or students who have other developmental disabilities and makes sure each child gets the individual attention they need.

Some days it’s teaching preschoolers how to share, sometimes it’s teaching them how to get another student’s attention, and sometimes it’s just teaching a student how to simply clap.

“There’s never a day where I wake up and think ‘I can’t do this today,’ because I know they depend on me,” Peterson said.

Peterson’s devotion and passion are just two of the reasons she was named the 2016-17 Horry County Schools Teacher of the Year at the district’s annual banquet last week.

Peterson has nine years teaching experience and three years experience at Ocean Bay. She also heads a program called Friday Knights II, which gives children, adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder a place for social recreation. The program stemmed from her time in New York – Peterson is a graduate of The College of Saint Rose – and started with just 30 participants and 30 volunteers.

Now, the program services 250 people and more than 200 volunteers.

“That’s my passion,” Peterson said. “It’s so meaningful to watch their progress and development over time.”

The program also gives parents two hours of respite while attendees learn appropriate social, communication and behavioral skills. The New York program offers a parent support group every Friday night as well, and Peterson is working to add a parent group at the Horry County group soon.

Shannon is never off the clock. Nothing is ever too much trouble for her.

Melanie Humphries, Peterson’s classroom aide

For now, she conducts three-night workshops on different issues for parents of children diagnosed with autism and other social disorders. In November the topic was sensory and fine motor needs in young children; March’s session taught parents about behavioral issues and ways to address them. The workshops are designed to relay practical information, provide hands-on teaching tools and allow parents to network.

The workshops help address one of the biggest challenges of her job: carrying over what students learn in the classroom to home.

“It becomes very challenging because parents don’t know or don’t have that skill set,” she said. “Most parents really want to learn, they want to know how to help their child, and that’s why those workshops are so helpful.”

Peterson’s second biggest challenge? Meeting every child’s needs in a diverse classroom.

None of Peterson’s students are on the exact same level developmentally, so figuring out how to teach each student individually while making sure nobody gets left behind can be a hurdle. However, individualized attention – along with lots of love – is the key to a successful student.

Sometimes that attention requires patience and planning on the spot.

“Part of the job is teaching kids that they don’t always get what they want, and that it’s OK to be mad about it,” Peterson said. “But then we teach them how to respond more appropriately the next time.”

It’s that special ability to teach each individual student that sets Peterson apart, said preschool special needs aide Melanie Humphries. Humphries spends her mornings helping Peterson escort kids to the bathroom, cleaning up any messes and guiding children through whatever activity is happening that day. They refer to each other as their “other halves.”

Shannon is a really wonderful teacher. She reaches into the heart of a child and really addresses the needs of every student.

Ben Prince, Ocean Bay Elementary principal

Both women are calm, cool and collected, which is what makes them such a great pair, Humphries said. They tend to read each other’s minds and know what’s expected without speaking.

“I know why she won, there’s no two ways about it. She lives, breathes and eats teaching,” Humphries said.

Her coworkers and administrators all remarked how passionate Peterson is every day on the job. Ben Prince, principal of Ocean Bay, said the teacher of the year stood out in every way during her job interview.

Her skill set, ability to connect with students and address every individual need is what stands out, even to this day.

“Everything about her just stands out,” Prince said. “Her demeanor, her personality, her skill set. She’s just one of those teachers who you want representing your staff every day.”

For Peterson, the award still hasn’t sunk in. After winning the coveted award she was made to wear a tiara around school and given a T-shirt with “Teacher of the Year” across the front – to Peterson’s embarrassment, she admits.

Part of her thinks it wasn’t fair she won an award against the other four qualified, passionate and smart teachers up for it, she said. She does think her passion for special education – and ability to share that passion with everyone else – played a part, though.

She doesn’t care about awards or recognition; she just doesn’t want any student to ever get left behind.

“These kids are smart and determined, and I just want people to know that just because they have a diagnosis doesn’t mean they can’t learn,” she said. “They just learn differently, and we have to teach differently.”

Claire Byun: 843-626-0381, @Claire_TSN