There's nothing more satisfying for special-ed teacher Paula Bickerton than to watch a frustrated, struggling student succeed at last.
The Mountain View Elementary teacher relishes moments when "a concept just clicks and the kids get it, and you can see how happy they are." She loves watching kids grow from being nonreaders who hate the written word to "realizing that reading can be fun and enjoyable," and she's delighted when a student who has behavioral problems evolves from a defiant child into someone who can control himself.
Bickerton is Salt Lake City School District's Special Education Teacher of the Year for 2011.
"It's about time she got recognized for her efforts," said Glendale Middle School principal John Erlacher, who served as principal at Mountain View Elementary last year, and knows Bickerton well. "She's tireless in her pursuit of excellence with kids. They love her. I've never met a student who didn't like her. Never met a parent either. She's a tireless advocate for kids."
When asked to describe a typical day at work, Bickerton said, "Oh my goodness. Busy, busy, busy."
Maybe that's why the word "tireless" keeps coming up when Bickerton is the subject.
"She's a principal's dream," Erlacher said. "I can't say enough about her. She just puts in the hours; she's always going the extra mile. If something needs to be done, she's the first in line to do it."
The daughter of a military man, Bickerton grew up "everywhere but Utah," including California, Africa and Germany. She attended high school in Connecticut, and got an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University. She recently earned a master's degree in special-ed from Grand Canyon University.
Fellow Mountain View Elementary special-ed teacher Noreen McDonald was among the educators who nominated Bickerton for Teacher of the Year. She said Bickerton is "amazing" at what she does, but would do well at another big job.
"She would make an awesome president [of the United States]," McDonald said.
Bickerton is seen as a leader at Mountain View Elementary, not because she props herself up as an expert, but because she's competent at what she does, McDonald and Erlacher agree. Bickerton is an active member of the school community and serves as the chairperson of the Student Services committee, which finds ways to help kids who are struggling with academics or behavior.
She enjoys working with special-ed kids because it's challenging and because she loves the "quirkiness of their personalities."
Erlacher said Bickerton has the ability to remain calm in every situation, even stressful ones. Last year, a student "was all over the place, pushing desks over."
"She'd just step in, sit quietly with him," Erlacher said. "She just had a way of chilling the child out."
At Mountain View Elementary, there is no "resource room." It's called the "learning center."
"That epitomizes where Paula is coming from," Erlacher said. "She doesn't want kids to feel segregated and apart from the group. She knows that kids simply learn at different rates."
The Teacher of the Year honor comes with a $1,000 prize. Bickerton wants to use the money for a trip to Washington, D.C., with her two sons.