Deep down, Michelle Rooks knew she’d be a teacher.
“I was always going to be a teacher,” Rooks said. “I was always pretending to teach. I loved to tutor kids.”
A Teton County School District No. 1 teacher for the past 16 years of her 23 as an educator, Rooks was recognized for her hard work with the annual Teacher of the Year award. At a ceremony last week the district celebrated all nominees and the unique roles they play.
New this year was the recognition of those other than teachers who make a difference in students’ lives. Holly Voorhees-Carmical, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, had the idea to include more employees in the celebration last year.
“We wanted to take this opportunity to not only honor an impactful teacher but the other 50 percent of our staff who also impact our students,” she said.
The two winning staff people of the year were Lenor Taggart, a special education paraprofessional at Jackson Hole Middle School, and Shelly Paciulli, the registrar at Jackson Hole Middle School.
Rooks is a sixth-grade English teacher at Jackson Hole Middle School. She also teaches the English side of dual immersion. Principal Matt Hoelscher called Rooks a “dynamo” in the classroom who isn’t afraid to take on anything.
But being a teacher wasn’t always a sure bet for Rooks. Her father, also a teacher and known in the community as a football coach, told her she needed to get a career in which she wouldn’t “have to depend on a man, ever.” So she went into business but would still volunteer her time as an educator on the side. That didn’t last long.
“You can’t volunteer yourself into a life you’re passionate about,” Rooks said. “So I went back to school to become a teacher.”
Becoming Teacher of the Year isn’t an easy feat amidst highly qualified staffers. The process is rigorous. The school nominates someone who, to be considered, must write three essays. Some of the writings focus on what’s working.
“We often think of reflection as a way to improve,” Rooks said. “This is reflection as a way to celebrate. I don’t think teachers get the opportunity to do that very often.”
Teachers must also present letters of recommendation from administrators, parents and former students and agree to be videotaped for the selection committee.
Being present when her students are at the moment of discovery, Rooks said, motivates her to keep going.
“I love when kids get really excited about a topic or if a topic is brand new,” she said. “It’s kind of cool to bear witness to that. When they get really passionate about their writing and they’re suddenly these activists because of what we are studying, it’s just a privilege to be a part of.”
Rooks is there when everything clicks.
“I also love being part of that light turning on,” she said. “When a kid changes his mind about who he or she is as a learner, or as a person, you get to be part of this. The opportunity to keep reminding the kid of what their potential is and who they could be is pretty powerful.”
Rooks feels the teaching profession is honored in Jackson but not always as appreciated across the country.
“I feel incredibly lucky to be a teacher in Jackson,” Rooks said. “Our community is an amazing partner, and that makes such a difference in the classroom. I call it the Jackson Hole miracle that we can live in a small town and it feels like a small town, and yet the most amazing people come to share their stories and experiences and talents with us. And, usually, when they are here, our community partners make sure the schools benefit from their visit.”
If those kinds of learning opportunities are to continue, Rooks said, teachers can’t do it alone.
“We need parents and the broader community to stay involved and keep supporting our students,” she said. “This involvement creates a deep sense of connection and gratitude in students — and teachers.”