Photo from Suzette's program, Camp Journey.
The day was unlike any other in the life of hard-working Suzette Steward Coates, a special education teacher in Katy, Texas. Surrounded by news crews, family, coworkers and friends, she and her students awaited the Live with Kelly & Michael show’s announcement of its Top Teacher winner. A nationwide search of public and private school from Pre-K through 12th grade, the Top Teacher program aims to honor teachers who make a difference in and out of the classroom.
The journey to get to this moment was long. Coates explains, “I’ve always wanted to be around kids with disabilities and adults with disabilities and to be able to help them become better members of our society. It’s always been something that I love to do. I connect with these individuals, and they have a special place in my heart.” After graduating from BYU-Idaho with a degree in recreation leadership and a minor in health science, Coates concluded that she could run her recreation programs in the summer and spend the rest of the year teaching the students she so loves.
Now a teacher of nine years, Coates spends weekends and summers working outside the classroom with her students. She runs camps that teach her students life skills, like how to go to the store or to the movies. She even takes kids for six to eight hours Saturdays to give the parents a much-needed break. And when does Coates herself take a break? Her answer is humbling: “That’s what the Sabbath is for.”
A woman of devout faith and personal conviction, she explains her dedication to her students: “Having the gospel, I feel like we have a different understanding of why we’re here on earth and what these individuals’ purposes are here. I feel that the more I can help and the more I can be with these children, the more I can be an example to others around me to show that acceptance and show that understanding of love and compassion and patience that we all need to have in our lives.”
Unaware of her nomination for the Top Teacher award until she was already a top-twelve contender, Coates describes her experience with the award process as “just one huge roller coaster.” After being selected as one of the top five finalists, she flew to New York on May 2nd to appear on the Live with Kelly & Michael show.
On May 7th, surrounded by loved ones in her hometown, Coates listened in shock as she was declared the grand prize winner. She describes the experience as “amazing.” She says, “It’s been such an honor. Any teacher is deserving of this, and it’s just been something that’s been overwhelming and at the same time exciting. I can’t feel any other way but just excitement.”
As part of the award, Coates won a trip for two to Tahiti, five eInstruction interactive instruction systems for her classroom, a 2014 Ford Escape, and $25,000 for Cinco Ranch Junior High School. But her real measure of success, she says, comes from “the random smiles, the hugs that you get, or the child doing something new for the first time. It’s the behaviors changing.”
With contentment in her voice, she adds, “I say it every day—that they will teach me more than I could ever teach them in a long time.”
For more information on Coates’s summer camp or to donate, visit http://www.camp-journey.com/.