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Meet Superhero Educator: Mel Lemme

This special education teacher creates inclusive learning experiences aimed at giving her young students their best start in life.

Mel Lemme knows the importance of giving young children a positive start in life through school, and it’s especially critical for special-needs students.

“The earlier you can start getting some of these kids with special needs help, the better their life is going to be in the long run,” says Mel, a K-2 special education teacher at Jefferson Primary Center in Summit, New Jersey. “The important thing is to meet the kids wherever they are. In my classroom, we follow the same curriculum as the general education classes. We just do it at a different pace, and with some supplemental things added in so that everybody gets what they need and where they need to go.”

To juggle everything from each child’s special needs to the full gamut of instructional requirements, Mel creates a comprehensive master schedule that accounts for every moment of every student’s day. She coordinates with school staff to get a landscape of when her students need to attend specials, therapy classes and more, and then she builds her own classroom schedule, including paraprofessional needs, student ability, etc.

The schedule, which is plastered across one whole wall of her classroom, gives everyone a quick snapshot of where each child should be. “This schedule allows my students to receive most of their instruction in a small-group setting,” Mel says. “At any given time, I have a wide range of abilities in my classroom with students who have learning gaps in different areas, and this schedule allows me to address those gaps.”

To further engage her young students, Mel has extended her instruction beyond the classroom. Thanks to a grant through the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), Mel and her students – and their parents – tend to a lush garden that’s just steps from their classroom door.

Mel likes to use the produce they grow to teach her students about healthy eating habits and to get them to try new things: “I have so many kids who are like, ‘I don't like peppers,’ but then when you plant the pepper plant, and you water the pepper plant, you watch the pepper plant grow, and then you're finally allowed to pick it, you eat it — even though you say you don’t like peppers. Then guess what? You do like peppers!”

Mel’s love of working with special education children is rooted in her own childhood, when she would visit the classroom where her mother worked as a special education paraprofessional. To this day, the two will spend hours talking about classroom instruction as well as their involvement in their association.

“I really like having my mom in the same type of classroom that I’m teaching in now,” Mel says. “I’ve actually been able to call her a lot and say, ‘What does the teacher in your room do when this is happening?’ or ‘How does she handle this?’”

“Melanie will call me probably 5 times a week when she’s traveling home and tell me about her day,” says her mother, Nancy Richeda. “We’re on a committee for NJEA together that we travel together for. We talk all the way down for 2 hours, and then we talk all the way home. Sometimes I’ll get home and I’m like, ‘Oh I forgot to tell her about Grandma!’ because we spend the whole time talking about our classrooms or the association.”

Mel’s mom says that Mel always goes the extra mile, follows through and is dependable—for her students, her coworkers and her association. “I’m so proud of what Melanie has done in her school as a teacher and in her association, standing up for others,” Nancy says.

Mel has spent the past several years becoming more immersed in her association, and she’s passing along that knowledge to the other NEA members in her school, hosting monthly 15-minute meetings with new members to keep them up to date and address any questions.

“I feel that by giving new members the history of the association both on the local and state level, as well as knowledge of education laws, regulations and their rights in the workplace, they’ll become the best educators they can be,” Mel says. “It’s also important for members to learn to lean on and support each other. By creating this supportive climate in my school, everyone – including the kids – is able to do their best.”

Although Mel’s passion for teaching remains strong, she hopes someday to make a bigger impact by taking on a bigger role in her association. “I feel like I can effect more change in an association role than in the role that I’m in now,” she says. “Right now, I can help the people in my building, the kids in my class, maybe a little bit more. If I were working for the association and in many schools across the state, how many more kids’ lives would I touch indirectly that way than the 10 that are in my class alone?”

For Mel, everything always comes back to the children: “I think the role of education is to push society up and to make everyone better. Everything needs to be put into making these kids the best people they can be because they’re going to be the people running the world, and they need to be good people. When you boil it down, it’s really a simple idea, but it means so much.”

PLUS: Watch Mel’s “Superhero Educator” video here!

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