Many of us aren’t lucky enough to know for sure what we want to do with our lives from a young age. Part of the beauty of life is the vast array of options available to try, assess, and reset if it doesn’t work out. But occasionally some of us have a sixth sense early on of what would suit us best, and that was the case for Michelle Lakan, a Special Education teacher at Central Intermediate. An Ottawa native, Michelle attended school in the district and was always drawn to the idea of being a teacher. “When I was younger, I would hang out with my friends and we’d play school in my basement with a little whiteboard,” Michelle recalled. It was the strong support system of her teachers that helped her to realize her true desire to become a teacher as early as seventh grade. “I had some pretty awesome and supportive teachers who kind of made me feel like I could do what they did, and I was helpful with other students,” she said.
Making a Difference Through Lived Experience
As a student, Michelle was able to personally benefit from the availability of the Special Education programs in place in the Ottawa Elementary School District. “Back in school I had an IEP and I had a specific learning disability,” she said. She remembers being aware at the time of the stigma associated with being a Special Education student and the feeling that her peers “know I’m not as smart as them” but that “it helped having those Special Education teachers that … supported [me],” she said. Her personal experiences help her to identify with her students on a deeper level. “I think it was cool for me to come in as a special education teacher because I kind of understood the things that those kids were feeling. … I understood you might not want to be pulled out [of class for additional support] because you don’t want people to know,” Michelle said.
As it did with so many of us, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic posed its own challenges for Michelle during her time as a student teacher prior to graduating from Illinois State University in December of 2020. Having been placed in a high school classroom as a student teacher, she was closing in on a pivotal point in her training, “But then COVID hit. I was just about to hit full takeover [where] I would pretty much be teaching all of the classes. But then we had to pack up all of our stuff and I had to go back home,” she recalled.
With patience and perseverance Michelle was able to navigate the rough waters of the new normal created by the pandemic. When students returned to the classroom, Michelle was able to resume her student teaching, placed alongside Kristine Sinetos at Shepherd Middle School learning behavior. “I loved that placement,” she said with a fond smile. It was during that time when Michelle was first able to work with her former eighth-grade teacher, Jennifer Lawsha, who was an inspiration to her during her time as a student. “She made me feel like I could do great things one day,” she said. That seed of confidence was very important to Michelle, and it continued to be nurtured by her teachers as she progressed in her education. “It was those teachers who you just knew they saw you as a person and not just as a student, and they really cared about you,” she said.
Michelle hopes to be able to have a positive impact on the lives of her students, just as her teachers did for her. “I just hope that they realize they are capable of things if they continue to try. … You’ve just got to put in the work, and you’ve got to let your teachers help you get there,” she said. As an educator, Michelle wants the families of the Ottawa Elementary School District to know that they have a “strong Special Education [program] and strong people advocating for their students who need that support.” From her personal experience she knows that’s part of the winning strategy to help keep students pushing forward in the face of adversity.