St. Clair Shores teacher inspired by others to the profession honored for work

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published April 7, 2021

 From left, Bozymowski Elementary Principal Heather Shubnell, Kathleen Nolfo and Paula Elias, the Macomb Intermediate School District Director of Center Programs, hold Nolfo’s Excellence in Education award from the Michigan Lottery.

From left, Bozymowski Elementary Principal Heather Shubnell, Kathleen Nolfo and Paula Elias, the Macomb Intermediate School District Director of Center Programs, hold Nolfo’s Excellence in Education award from the Michigan Lottery.

Photo provided by Kathleen Nolfo

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — The mother of a son with special needs, Kathleen Nolfo said she always appreciated the tremendous assistance she received from his teachers while he was growing up.

“My oldest son was a special education student in Lakeview, and I appreciate the support that I got from the teachers that he had along the way at Lakeview,” said Nolfo, of St. Clair Shores. “I just wanted to give that same support to families. I really, truly appreciate the support that I got.”

That’s what inspired her to work in special education with the Macomb Intermediate School District, where she has served since 1984, first as a paraprofessional and then as a teacher.

“I was a paraprofessional for 23 years before finishing my degree,” she said. “I went back and finished my degree and stayed on as a teacher.”

She taught post-secondary students in Sterling Heights before moving to the autism program at Bozymowski Elementary in 2012. The MISD leases four classrooms at Rodgers Elementary in St. Clair Shores for Bozymowski Elementary, as well as classrooms at Wilde Elementary, Sequoyah Elementary and Naldrett Elementary.

“I really enjoy working with the students. I enjoy seeing progress, no matter how small,” she said. “In my profession, the progress we see is much, much smaller than a typically developing child, but it’s just amazing to be part of that.”

Nolfo was awarded the Excellence in Education award by the Michigan Lottery this month, but she said she was so shocked to hear the news that she almost missed the interview for the award. She kept ignoring emails from the Michigan Lottery, she said, because she thought they were a scam.

“It took her a long time to convince me that I had actually won something,” she said of the Michigan Lottery employee who kept trying to reach out to her.

The Michigan Lottery established the Excellence in Education awards in 2014 to recognize outstanding public schools educators across the state throughout the academic year. Teachers are evaluated for the award based on how their work helps students advance to higher levels of academic achievement, how they go above and beyond expectations to help students succeed, that their work inspires others around them to exceed expectations academically or professionally, that they demonstrate clear leadership skills, and that their work has clear and positive results on the educational advancement of students within the school or district.

The parent who nominated Nolfo for the award is the mother of a student she teaches each day via Zoom. Nolfo said she was so surprised the parent was able to keep news of the award under wraps until Nolfo was interviewed by the Excellence in Education committee.

She said the parent’s nomination was very heartfelt and emotional to watch. Nolfo prepares her students for middle school, but they could be with her for a couple years, from grades 3 to 5, before moving on to a new building.

“Sometimes they come in (to Bozymowski Elementary) at 3, 4 years old. They’re used to us and then they have to make that shift. That’s really hard on parents, and it’s hard on students,” Nolfo said. “If you have a child who has limited communication abilities, you rely on other people and you trust other people. He’s got to make that change to non-familiar people, but he’s not able to communicate his fears or anxiety.”

She was happy to know she’s made an impact on a student’s life.

While a majority of students in the school have been learning face-to-face throughout the 2020-21 school year, there were enough students whose parents did not want them to attend in-person classes to form two virtual classes. Nolfo teaches one of those classes and, although she said it has been very different, she always has to adapt to her students each year.

“All of the things that I use to teach with ... we have to create just about everything, and we have to create it individually for students. I can’t reuse things from last year, so I’m always feeling like a brand new teacher,” Nolfo said.

Although this school year was even more different than most, Nolfo said it was for the best and she’s enjoying it now that she’s developed a rhythm.

“For me, it’s better because I’m a hugger,” she said, explaining that she couldn’t imagine not being able to give her students a hug when they accomplished something great if she was in the room with them.

The Michigan Lottery Excellence in Education Award is awarded to 34 teachers throughout the year. Nolfo was awarded $1,500 for herself and $500 to use in her classroom. She said she was going to add equipment and supplies to a calming area she has in her room and also use the money to enhance the sensory room shared between the four classes at the school.

With her own money, Nolfo said she needs a new concrete porch on her house.

She said she appreciated the recognition and the chance to be included in a great group of teachers.

“It’s just fun to be in that mix,” she said.

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