There’s a flipchart on Columbus East teacher Michelle Burnett’s desk that is always set to the same page.

The word on that page — “hopeful” — faces out toward her students.

Burnett said she is hopeful that her students will make good choices, that they will find success and perhaps most of all, that they will be happy.

Not just in her classroom, but in their lives, she said.

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Burnett, 42, a special-education teacher, was recently named to Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.’s Hall of Fame, an award presented to educators who have made extraordinary contributions to the school corporation. Winners are nominated by co-workers or community members.

She was honored at a recent BCSC school board meeting, saying the recognition meant a great deal to her as it came in the same month that she reached her 21st anniversary in teaching.

“The students in my classroom are often angry, frustrated, sad, depressed, anxious, withdrawn, guarded and overwhelmed,” she told school board members. “Being engaged and motivated to do their school work is usually difficult for them because of the feelings and life situations they are experiencing.”

So Burnett looks for an opportunity to connect.

“Each day, I strive to be a light for them,” she said. “I meet them where they are, with no judgment. It takes a mix of encouragement, clear expectations, tough love, patience — a lot of patience — and humor, a lot of that too — but most of all, it takes compassion.”

Columbus East Principal Mark Newell said he has seen how Burnett cares for her students and demonstrates patience with them.

“She’s very engaging,” he said.

{&subleft}Nominated by a fellow teacher

Rebecca Daugherty, an East speech language pathologist, nominated Burnett after working with her.

Burnett has had an impact throughout the school and Columbus community, not just in her classroom, Daugherty said.

“Michelle is an example of how relationship building goes beyond just six hours a day, 180 times a year,” Superintendent John Quick said of Burnett.

He described Burnett as a person who understands that BCSC doesn’t have any “throw-away” kids, pointing out that she will visit youth who are in a county detention center — not because it’s part of her job, but because she is concerned about their welfare and their future.

“Kids can smell genuine. You have to have a strong sense of empathy and a strong sense of mission to be a teacher — and she has that,” Quick said.

Burnett admitted to being a bit shocked by the award.

Despite her outgoing and friendly nature, she said the plaque presentation was a little out of her comfort zone.

What is in her comfort zone is finding ways to reach students not only in her classroom, but throughout the East campus and beyond.

“My goal is to come in here every day and make a difference in these kids’ lives,” she said.

Admitting she’s the first one to go to bat for every student she comes across, she also develops strong relationships with teachers who are working with the same students, so a dialogue will develop about how to help students academically, socially or in whatever arena they need assistance.

And it’s not just for students in East classrooms.

Burnett has bus monitor duty at East, which is a transfer stop for Columbus Signature Academy students of all grade levels. She was watching out for students who weren’t wearing gloves on recent cold mornings — and keeps extras in her pockets to hand out. She’s watching for students who seem to be struggling, perhaps walking with their head down or avoiding eye contact, and tries to find a way to connect.

Sometimes the goal is just to get a student to smile, for just a moment, she said.

No day is the same, she said. Some days, a student may seem a bit down or struggling and need an encouraging word. Another day, a student may just want to celebrate an achievement by telling her about it while waiting for the bus. Sometimes, it’s just about listening to a student and helping them sort out something that seems insurmountable.

“We always try to keep an eye on what a student needs. And if they need more support than we can give, we get it for them,” she said.

{&subleft}Other roles and ways to connect

Burnett is an adviser for East’s Key Club, an organization that promotes leadership and volunteerism, describing these members as her adopted students. She offers them support and encouragement, too.

Each week, she goes to Rock Creek Elementary School with two Key club members to have lunch with students there in a “big brother-big sister” program.

Key Club members collect magazines and books to donate, and coordinate East’s fund-raising campaign for the United Way. For $1, East students can sign a rocking chair in Burnett’s classroom, showing their support for United Way. Each year, the color of the pen changes to signify the donation year.

“She’s always willing to smile and to make your day better,” said Mila Lipinski, an East sophomore who is a Key Club member.

In addition to the “hopeful” flip chart on Burnett’s desk, students notice she has a series of items designed to maximize humor and minimize stress.

There’s a Staples “Easy” button and a fake panic button that has a humorous message.

Burnett also has four alarm clocks on her desk, timed to her “to-do” list every day, to keep her on track.

“At one point, I had as many as seven going,” she laughed. “Since I never know what’s going to happen, when the alarm clock goes off, I know it’s going to get done.”

Behind her desk is a wall of pictures and sayings, from students at East and other schools, with messages of support and thanks for her efforts.

“We strive to make our room feel comfortable,” she said. “We want it to be welcoming and cheerful, encouraging and inspirational.”

And she will tell visitors that the wall covered with messages behind her desk is how she encourages herself at times.

“The thing about this job is I don’t always know, this day or that year, whether what I’ve done made a little difference in their lives,” she said.

“I hope, someday, as an adult, they will realize I cared about them, and I believed in them. Maybe something I did for them or something they heard from me can be used in their lives forever.”

About Michelle Burnett
  • Has taught for 21 years, beginning her teaching career at Hayden Elementary in Jennings County in 1994.
  • Moved to a teaching position at Northside Middle School in 1998 and then to Columbus East High School in 2006.
  • Graduated from Purdue University, West Lafayette, and licensed in special education for Grades K-12. Original goal was to teach elementary school.
  • Family: Husband Rob Burnett is a foreman at Case Construction; daughter Jade is a freshman at Franklin University, son Alec is a freshman at Columbus East and daughter Kyra is a third grader at Rock Creek Elementary School.

Pull Quote

“I meet them (students) where they are, with no judgment. It takes a mix of encouragement, clear expectations, tough love, patience — a lot of patience — and humor, a lot of that too — but most of all, it takes compassion.”

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.