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Apps can be very helpful in staying in touch with family and friends, but for the Mountain Island Lake Academy staff hoping to surprise their learning community's teacher assistant of the year, they were a challenge.

Shannon Cleaton and her husband, Jamie, live only a few houses down from the school. They have apps installed on their phones to notify one another when they're almost home. When the school staff contacted Jamie to invite him to a surprise announcement for Cleaton, he had to come up with a cover story.

"He texted me that morning and told me that he had to run home and pick up something," said Cleaton. "I was covering the front desk that morning and he offered to bring me a nice, cold drink. That way I wouldn't be suspicious of his phone activity."

Her husband wasn't the only one sneaking around. The staff at Mountain Island created an elaborate ruse to get Cleaton away from the front desk and out to the modular units. Then she was asked to come to the media center. Her colleagues, students, husband, mother and grandmother were waiting for her. There was also a special guest, third-grader Stella, who is Cleaton's daughter. Cleaton was the 2019 Teacher Assistant of the Year for the Northwest Learning Community. She's the first teacher assistant from the school to ever win at a learning community level.

"I was absolutely dumbfounded," said Cleaton. "I had to bend over and catch my breath."

Cleaton said that her colleagues, especially her fellow teacher assistants, are all-stars. "I appreciate being nominated more than they could ever know," she said. "We all work hard to do everything that we can. We all wear so many hats and to know someone things I am doing a great job is amazing."

Cleaton is a Charlotte native and CMS graduate. She started kindergarten at the original Berryhil Elementary, where she attended until third grade. She attended private school, but returned to North Mecklenburg High to graduate.

Her time in private school made Cleaton realize the importance and value of public education. "I wish I'd had the opportunity to stay in public school the whole time," she said. "There were so many opportunities I missed to start working on my early childhood certification before I even graduated."

After high school, Cleaton wasn't sure what she wanted to do. She took a job as a teller at BB&T. "We could not afford college without having a clear plan," she said.

After a few years, she enrolled at Central Piedmont Community College. She was able to get 80 percent of her tuition reimbursed thanks to a teaching scholarship program. She took a job at a day care center right next door to Mt. Island and was soon the assistant director of the facility. "I took on that role when my daughter was five months old," she said. "I was working 60 to 70 hours a week and was doing too much administrative work. I returned to the classroom as a teacher."

That's when Cleaton met Faith Johnson, a kindergarten teacher at Mountain Island. Johnson's children went to Cleaton's school and Cleaton's daughter was in Johnson's class. "I liked the way that she parented because I feel like that shows what a great teacher can be," said Cleaton.. "The way you talk to your children is probably going to show how you talk to other people's children."

Cleaton and Johnson developed a relationship and Johnson encouraged her to apply. She became a teacher assistant at the school 10 years ago.

"This is a very diverse school," said Cleaton. "We have homeless children and we have children that live in $700,000 homes. And they all need something special. They all have things going on at home. As a TA, I can work with them individually and try to help address those needs."

Cleaton is assigned to second grade and spends much of her day working with the students in small groups. "This is where they feel most comfortable talking about what is going on at home or why they are struggling," she said. "It is a real insight into who they are as little humans."

Known for her cupcake making, Cleaton loves to celebrate with her colleagues. "I appreciate everything that we all put in to help these kids and I want to let everyone know it. So I throw some cupcakes in the oven and bring them to school."

Cleaton is even known to help students outside of school in her time off. A friend's husband was recently battling cancer. Cleaton and her husband started picking the couple's two children up from Irwin Academy every Wednesday night and helping them with homework. They've taken the girls, along with Stella, to Carowinds. "This could happen to anyone," said Cleaton. "The school is a village and our neighborhood is a village. We have to take care of each other."

Being so close to the school, Cleaton often runs into students. "We had one struggling student who lost his mother," she said. "We ran into him at Walmart with his aunt and he ran over and hugged me and said, 'This is the best teacher ever!' That's when you know you are doing something right."

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