“Whirlwind.” That’s how Megan Gross, a Special Education teacher at Del Norte High School, describes her tenure as one of five San Diego County’s 2017 “Teacher of the Year.” She had been teaching in the Autism Spectrum Disorders program at her site for only four years when she received the honor, so it was completely unexpected.
“I wish every teacher could experience being recognized,” said Gross.
Little did she know that her recognition would lead her to the Oval Office, where she had an emotional meeting with President Trump—but more on that in a bit.
Shortly after being named one of the county’s teachers of the year, Gross was chosen as California’s Teacher of the Year. That meant she had a shot at being a finalist for the 2017 National Teacher of the Year. (If you’re counting, that’s four Teachers of the Year, including her site honor.) It was such a long shot to Gross that when the national selection committee called her last December, she thought they were notifying her that she had make a mistake on her application.
“It was a call to be a finalist,” said Gross. “But it was embargoed. I couldn’t tell anyone.”
She confessed that she did tell her husband that she was now one of four teachers in the entire country to be a finalist for the national honor. She remembers it being a very special moment because her passion for inclusive education finally had a spotlight.
“I love that the national selection committee showed that they valued inclusion,” Gross said. “We need to have a conversation about our values and what kids need.”
She spent the past year traveling around the country working with fellow teachers, meeting with state lawmakers, and even visiting schools in Japan. She said the trip was an eyeopening experience and an incredible opportunity to see how that country handles their students who have special needs.
“They are also grappling with how to include students in their neighborhood schools,” said Gross. “For the majority of their students with disabilities, they have a separate school site.”
She says the USA has made some progress when it comes to including students into general education classes, but we could do better. She’s someone who leads that movement and it’s best to stay out of her way. Her passion is powerful.
“I’m an advocate about making sure that students with moderate and severe disabilities have access to general education classes,” Gross said. “If we want kids to have opportunities and live rich adult lives, then we have to include them as kids.”
As California’s Teacher of the Year, she earned a trip to the White House, where she gave the President a special message from her 7-year old son.
“My son drew a picture of an eagle and wrote, ‘Be Kind,’ and so I was able to give it to the President. For me, personally, that was a hard moment because I’m concerned for our country and the perpetuation of racism and discrimination. The work I do with inclusion is so important to me but, I also know that I represent all California educators and that I don’t hold every teacher’s political viewpoint, so I try to be cognizant of that in my representation.”
Yes, it’s definitely been a whirlwind year, but for Gross the best reward is knowing that her teaching has had an impact. Recently, a student from her very first class 10 years ago told her that what she taught her mattered. It’s why she’s now in college and has a job.
“That to me is what gives me the motivation to keep going,” Gross said. “I think teaching is where everything begins. The future of our country and communities depends on having educated citizens. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
Gross will be presenting at “Cox Presents: A Salute to Teachers” on Saturday, September 16. The ceremony will air LIVE at 8 p.m. from the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego. Five out of the 44 teachers will be named “County Teachers of the Year.” You can watch the show LIVE on YurView Cox Channel 4 and 1004. Or watch the live stream here.
To learn more, visit salutetoteachers.com.