“They may not remember everything you taught them, but they will remember how you treated them.”

This is the motto by which Northlake Elementary teacher Melanie Yungclas guides her professional life. She has it posted on the door of her first grade classroom to ensure that it will be the very first thing she sees each morning when she arrives at school.

Melanie was recently honored as the RISE Foundation Elementary School Teacher of the Year for her creativity and innovation in the classroom. The RISE foundation is a non-profit organization that was formed in 1974 in order to raise money to support education within the Richardson Independent School District. In addition to the yearly teacher award, the RISE foundation administers small grants to students wishing to do scientific research.

K. Jonas, Secretary to the RISE Foundation, describes the selection procedure as “grueling.” Says Jonas, “the process begins with an 11-page application, which contains letters of nomination from students, parents and peers. The teacher is then interviewed by the selection committee. Finally, all nine members of the committee make a classroom visit over a two week period.” This process is thorough, extensive, and takes several months. Eight teachers were chosen in various categories to receive the honor that carries with it a cash award of $1000.

In Melanie’s case, it was the parents of her first grade students that got together to nominate her for the award. Melanie says she was surprised by her nomination, and touched by all the sweet comments from the children. It is easy to see why they love her so much – her classroom is a testimony to the respect she has for them.

“I want the classroom to be their place,” says Melanie, “so I let them come up with the ideas.”

For example, while studying the rainforest, her students wanted to turn the hallway outside the classroom into a jungle. She procured the necessary supplies and let them go for it, and the result was an amazing display that the whole school enjoyed. Melanie thinks that this student-centered philosophy is what most impressed the judges.

“Everything in my room is kid size – the decorations are hung low, at a kid’s eye level. My students are always very excited, constantly asking questions and making suggestions.”

Although Melanie is always in control of her class, she admits that she is more interested in sparking her students creativity that being a stern taskmaster. Her approach is unquestionably successful – many of her students were coded non-English speaking at the beginning of the year. By the end of the school year, they were all performing on grade level or better.

Recently, Melanie was selected as a statewide finalist for Elementary Teacher of the Year. What does Melanie think makes a good teacher?

“I believe that at truly great teacher is able to find the good in every child,” she says. “It’s an overall approach in the classroom – the ability to focus on what is right with a child instead of what is wrong.”

Melanie practices what she preaches by creating a classroom where every idea is encouraged and respected. And, although Melanie is honored to be chosen for these awards, she says her real reward is all the hugs and kisses, given and received. It is a feeling best expressed by the words of one of her students: “Ms. Yungclas always looks at me like she loves me.”