Erin Palonen's 'Top Teacher' citation on Kelly and Michael show has unexpected result

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Griswold - posted Mon., May. 20, 2013
Erin Palonen displays her Top Teacher trophy from the "Live with Kelly and Michael" show in her Griswold MIddle School classroom. The banner behind her was made for a school rally in her honor. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Erin Palonen displays her Top Teacher trophy from the "Live with Kelly and Michael" show in her Griswold MIddle School classroom. The banner behind her was made for a school rally in her honor. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

It wasn’t till all the dust had settled and the results were in that Griswold Middle School special education teacher Erin Palonen discovered the real reason she’d been named a finalist for the “Live with Kelly and Michael” show’s “Top Teacher” award.

Never mind the appearance on national TV and the fabulous prizes – a trip to Las Vegas, concert tickets to see her beloved Celine Dion, a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. Never mind the gift of 30 tablet computers pre-loaded with Skype for the school district’s use. Never mind the accolades. Palonen said her real prize is an e-mail from a total stranger, inviting one of her former special education students to illustrate the children’s book she wrote.

It’s been a wild ride for Palonen, who was called out of class one day and informed that she was one of 12 semifinalists in the show’s “Top Teacher” competition. There in the school office, administrators turned the TV on as her name was announced. “That’s kind of when it hit me,” she said. “There was my face on the screen. I just started crying.” At that time, even GMS interim principal Paul Berkel didn’t know who had nominated Palonen for the honor.

Palonen had to go to the show’s website to read the letter submitted by Lisa Coe, the mother of Palonen’s student, Katie Davis. Coe hadn’t told Palonen about the letter, in which she describes how her initial fears for her daughter’s future were dispelled by Palonen’s enthusiasm and dedication. “During the hardest times when the pain of [Katie’s autism diagnosis] seemed hardest to bear, she has been our strength,” Coe wrote. “I consider Erin to be my eldest daughter.”

Palonen worked with Katie through eight years at Griswold High School, establishing GHS’s Special Olympics speed-skating program, at which Katie excelled. “In a world that is very small for Katie in so many ways, she now has a bedroom lined with ice skating trophies and dozens of gold, silver and bronze medals,” Coe wrote. Palonen even invited her special education students to attend her wedding.

Palonen was moved by Coe’s tribute, calling the letter “unbelievably beautiful.” As “Kelly and Michael” viewers voted over the course of a week, she watched from home during spring break as she was named one of five finalists. “That was when things really got crazy,” she said. A TV crew spent three days filming her in action at GMS, where she had moved from GHS last fall. The TV show featured a finalist each day for a week: Palonen’s segment aired last.

A few days after her segment aired, Palonen got word that she had not won the show’s grand prize of a new car. But what she calls her own grand prize came from Texas: an e-mail from a TV viewer who spotted Katie working on her whimsical drawings in the filmed segment. The drawings rekindled the viewer’s memory of a children’s book she’d written but never had published, for lack of suitable illustrations. Could Katie illustrate the book for her?

Palonen was thrilled to help the viewer connect with Katie and her family. “That’s why this all happened,” she said. Efforts to find suitable employment for Katie’s needs after graduation had come up empty, she said. This opportunity seemed perfectly ordained: the book title is “There’s An Octopus In My Pillow” – and Katie loves the octopus. “Now, the possibility of a career in what she’s most passionate about was the whole reason this happened,” she said.

Palonen, a Griswold resident who graduated from GHS herself in 2000, said she was taught by many exemplary teachers during her time in school, and that experience helped her imagine herself in that role. “The only choice I made was to wake up every day and go somewhere I love,” she said. “I want [teaching] to be a part of my life, something I can get my family involved with. That’s why I wanted to be a teacher.”

“Placing second” in the contest doesn’t even occur to her. “I couldn’t have imagined this in my wildest dreams, the overwhelming support from this community, the school, the students,” she said. “I’m just so humbled by the whole thing. The nature of this whole experience was not about anything material. It was about the community and the kindness of people.”

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