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One student’s memories of a caring and patient teacher were responsible for that teacher recently being named “Teacher of the Year,” an annual recognition sponsored by the Lebanon Federal Credit Union.
Melissa Hess, a kindergarten teacher at South Lebanon Elementary School, was nominated for the award by Gwyneth Young, a former student of hers who is now a senior at Cedar Crest High School.
Recalling the kindness of Ms. Hess when she was just a shy kindergarten student, Young’s nomination really touched the LFCU judges.
“She said she loved Ms. Hess when she had her as a teacher,” said Wendy Kalbach, Vice President of Community and Business Development for LFCU. “It was hard for her to sit still, but Miss Hess took the time she needed and was patient with her, giving her individual attention.”
That early help was what she needed to succeed in school, Young wrote in her nomination.
“I know the children are all different; I don’t compare,” Hess said. “They come in with different gifts and you don’t know their gifts until they all blossom into something different.”
Hess received her award just this past week, in a surprise appearance at her classroom by representatives of the Cornwall-Lebanon School District and the credit union.
Administrator Joe Burton walked into Hess’ classroom and asked if he could speak with her in the hallway…as Hess noticed more people congregating she wondered if she had signed up for a presentation, she said.
“When Wendy (Kalbach) said ‘we’re here today to present you with a gift,’ I put it all together,” Hess said. “But I’m still in shock.”
Hess remembered Gwyneth, too, as “such a wonderful little girl.”
To honor her accomplishment, Hess received a $1,000 gift and $1,000 will also be given to the elementary school for use as they see fit.
“I am humbled beyond belief to receive that honor and I think it still hasn’t sunk in,” Hess said. “It was a complete surprise…I had not even the slightest inkling.”
Seeing their teacher receive an award, her students were excited, too, Hess said.
“They were jumping up and down and saying ‘we love you,’ ” she said.
This year’s LFCU runner-up for “Teacher of the Year” was Aaron Lucas, a seventh grade teacher at the Lebanon Middle School.
Lucas will receive $500 and his school will also receive $500, Kalbach said.
A ninth-grade student nominated Lucas, his former teacher, for the honor.
“This reminded me of the importance of my job; as one of the first persons to help them in their career of learning and to empower them to love learning,” Hess said. ” If I can give them that comfortable foundation so they’re happy and successful in the future, that’s what I want to do.”
Occasionally, Hess will see one of the children she taught from years ago and they’ll give her a smile: “That reminds me that they had a good experience,” she said.
Hess truly enjoys working with her kindergarten age group.
“They’re so cute at five; they love life, they love learning, and they’re effervescent,” she said. “They come into the classroom with a smile; this is their safe, happy place.”
The credit union has been naming a “Teacher of the Year” since 2018.
“One of our primary goals is to give back to the community, and to education,” Kalbach said.
Hess is a graduate of Lebanon Valley College and Cedar Crest High School and now teaches in the same room where she was once a kindergartner herself.
Hess has been teaching kindergarten at the South Lebanon school for the past 21 years, and before that, had worked with Head Start, in learning support, and as a long-term substitute for first and sixth grades.
Teaching young learners is a joyful experience, Hess said.
“Just watching them and seeing when the light bulb goes on; they see the connection to something you’ve taught them, and when they make that connection it’s wonderful,” Hess said.
Some of her young students will worry about not being able to read, so she tells them “Give it a little bit of time.”
“Then the day comes when they’ll say ‘I can read that word, I know that word!’ “Hess said. “That is the most wonderful thing and it’s amazing, too.
“Or, if someone is struggling in math and they suddenly say ‘I got that number!’ and they’re beaming,” Hess said.
Although class numbers are slightly lower this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, she has 17 busy students in the morning and 17 energetic students in the afternoon, and this is good, Hess said, because in-class learning is invaluable.
“In-person learning is imperative for all kids and it’s really crucial for this age,” Hess said.
The “Teacher of the Year” award is open to any teacher in a Lebanon County school and nominations may come from parents, co-workers, students, or folks in the community. This year, the credit union received more than 50 nominations.
“We like to hear from the students, how the teacher has guided them, (helped) them, and what makes them their favorite teacher,” Kalbach said.
Regarding her cash award, Hess said a portion of it will go toward adoption fees of a Great Dane/pit-bull puppy she has been fostering.
The dog had been at the Lebanon County Humane Society for 900 days before she brought him home, Hess said.
“That was way too long, so we decided to change a life,” Hess said. “Time, love, and commitment can turn their world around and – like teaching – everybody deserves a chance.”
Congratulations once again to Ms. Hess!