Educator gets a thumbs up

Special education instructor at Carrolltowne Elementary in Sykesville earns top honors in county for inspiring students to do their best

May 06, 2007|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

Ask the children in Antonina "Toni" Wallace's early childhood special needs class at Carrolltowne Elementary, and they'll tell you, with thumbs up, they are the best.

Now Wallace's students, who attend what is sometimes dubbed "Toni's School," can officially give her a thumbs up: The special education instructor was named Carroll County's 2007 Teacher of the Year.

Wallace, who has taught at Carrolltowne since 2001 and at the Carroll Springs School before that, was one of eight finalists selected by the county Chamber of Commerce for its Outstanding Teacher Awards, said Barry Gelsinger, coordinator of the Carroll County Teacher of the Year program.

Earlier this year, the Chamber recognized Wallace and more than 200 other teachers for their performance, said Peggy Soper, the Chamber's event coordinator.

Wallace learned of her Teacher of the Year award last week. Next, she will represent the county in the state's Teacher of the Year program.

"I never anticipated the opportunity," Wallace said Wednesday morning, before her students, who range in age from 2 to 5, arrived. "I just do what I'm passionate about."

But to fellow educators and specialists at Carrolltowne, Wallace's passion drives her to do the extraordinary as she works to build her students' language skills.

"No matter how challenging a child is ... her love and compassion of those kids just never wanes," said Martin Tierney, Carrolltowne principal. "The magic that she does in that room is just amazing, and it's not by any wands being waved. It's a lot of hard work, a lot of blood, sweat and tears every day."

A first-generation Sicilian raised in Baltimore County, Wallace traces her special education roots to her family.

She recalled spending evenings working and playing with her cousin Joey, who was physically and mentally disabled from an illness at age 2. Doctors had recommended sending him to an institution, she said.

"He was the absolute joy of my life," Wallace said. He also taught her how everyone can achieve, regardless of differences.

Her cousin died when Wallace was 17, she said, but left her with an understanding and compassion that she wanted to pass on to others.

By becoming a teacher, Wallace said, "I knew that I was going to reach a segment of the population that sometimes gets kind of forgotten."

The mother of three said she was glad for the chance to speak for early childhood special education, and to show people that it is anything but "day care."

She and her team help children develop functional skills , she said, skills that will allow them to make connections -- and friends.

"I build an emotional attachment with every kid in here," she said, and strives to teach her students that "no matter what happens to you outside ... here you will thrive."

"When the kids succeed, that's when she succeeds," said Janet Street, a physical therapist who works with her. "She puts in 200 percent into everything."

Wallace also doesn't give up, said Theresa Lennon, an instructional assistant in her class. "Regardless of the child's disability, she finds a way to push them to the next level."

Wallace persisted in that effort on Wednesday, as she, Street and Lennon coaxed students through an obstacle course with brick-shaped cardboard boxes for hurdles and objects such as a plastic banana, fireman's hat and toy cow in between -- a motor-skills exercise.

With Street by his side, Matthew Awalt, 2, stood before one pair of toy bricks."Step over, and then go get that," Wallace said, referring to the small cow lying just beyond the hurdle. "You can do this."

She encouraged his peers to shout, "Go, Matthew" as he tentatively made his way along the course, raising each leg and then bending to pick up the next object. Every time, he landed in the waiting arms of Wallace, who cheered.

But he gave his teachers another reason to celebrate at the end of the course, when he picked up the plastic banana.

What is it? Wallace asked, adding a verbal workout to his physical one. "It's a --"

Matthew grabbed his cheeks in reply.

"Not an apple," Wallace said, interpreting his gesture.

"A ba --," Matthew finally said.

Wallace turned to Lennon.

"Did you hear that?" she said, tears in her eyes.

It was Matthew's first sound. Later, Wallace got him to say "ba" twice more.

"This is why I teach," she said.

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