2021 Teachers of the Year: Me-Chelle Burkhalter of The Wellington School
This middle school educator teaches science but also provides the social support that adolescents need.
In her dual role as seventh-grade lead adviser and a seventh-grade science teacher, Me-Chelle Burkhalter jokes that the students who attend The Wellington School for multiple years “can’t avoid me.”
That’s likely not something most would want anyway, considering the “glass half full” personality that co-interim middle school Principal Lissa Wade says she witnesses daily from Burkhalter, who was named the middle school winner in the Columbus Parent/ThisWeek Community News 2021 Teachers of the Year awards.
Burkhalter, 48, a 1991 Westland High School graduate who lives in the Grove City area, worked in mechanical engineering and e-commerce before deciding she would rather work with teenagers. She has been coaching softball for 15 years, including as the Wellington Jaguars’ varsity coach since 2012, and is in her seventh year as a teacher at the school.
For this year’s Teachers of the Year awards (the eighth year for the recognition program), we received a record 152 nominations from school districts all over Central Ohio. Educators were nominated by their peers, administrators, parents, students and family members. Nominations were taken online from Dec. 10 to Jan. 14. The editorial staffs of Columbus Parent and ThisWeek reviewed all the submissions, did some independent research and narrowed the list to 15 finalists. Readers voted from Feb. 24 to March 24 to determine the three winners.
“[The award] means a lot because as teachers, we care so much about our kids and it’s so hard to know what they’re feeling, what their emotions are,” Burkhalter says. “Students and kids in general are super resilient, but they need support to navigate adolescence, and we don’t have the ability to be as in touch with them as much as we want to be in this socially distanced society.”
Burkhalter graduated from Ohio State University with a bachelor’s degree in business and played for the Buckeyes’ softball team. Her daughter, Alexis, is a junior at Wellington who plays softball and is a two-time Division II state qualifier as a doubles player in girls tennis.
Wellington students have been in the classroom full time since the school year began, and Burkhalter has navigated it by doing what she calls “high-flex learning.”
“We support each other,” Burkhalter says. “We have kids who opt to stay home and we have kids in the classroom, so we’re teaching them simultaneously. Our technology department has huge screens and surfaces in every room and we’re able to have a two-way look. They can see what’s happening in class and we can also see them at home.”
Lindsey Smith, Wellington’s chief operating officer and director of athletics, recognizes the passion Burkhalter has for teaching. “She actually teaches my daughter, so it’s pretty close to home,” Smith says. “It’s not just memorization and testing, but she really is thoughtful about the assignments she gives them and that they walk away from these projects and assignments with a new understanding. She’s really unique in the way she educates in the comprehensiveness of the material.”
Wade, who nominated Burkhalter for the Teachers of the Year honor, says Burkhalter has gone the extra mile throughout the school year, particularly for students who have been learning virtually. “She’s driven supplies and science experiments to their homes and goes out of her way to make sure they feel 100 percent important,” Wade says. “Even in a non-COVID-constraining year, she’s a big dreamer. She will come up with something and if she doesn’t know how to make it happen, she’ll go to the people that will.”
Burkhalter also serves as the Girls of Color affinity school group adviser and teaches two elective courses she designed, “Women in Science” and “Sporty STEM.”
“I can’t think of a teacher who would be more deserving of this award,” says Jeff Terwin, Wellington’s head of school. “This has been such a challenging year when teachers were asked to do so much and so many teachers, like Me-Chelle, always wanted to do even more. Me-Chelle is a gifted and passionate educator. She helps students see what is possible and then supports their efforts in reaching new heights. She has very high standards for her students but guides them in a way that they feel affirmed and supported. She brings an energy and optimism that is absolutely infectious.”
Jarrod Ulrey is a reporter for ThisWeek Community News.
This story is from the Summer 2021 issue of Columbus Parent.