Special/Signature Issues » 2013 Top 40 Under 40

Lisa Marie Coates, 34

Special Education Teacher Leader, Hanover County Public Schools

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  • Scott Elmquist

Her brothers are grown and married, but when Lisa Marie Coates was a teenager, life for the two boys seemed far from certain.

“They were of special needs,” she says, “and watching their struggles, seeing what my parents went through and the whole special education process — the homework, trying to stay in school — I wanted to be that person who said, ‘I understand.’”

That propelled her toward a college degree, the first in her family, and a career built on championing kids sometimes lost in the system. She’s a mentor teacher for others entering the profession, and won a state title as science teacher of the year for at-risk students.

“My path was not paved,” she says. “A lot of my successes come from failures, and I share that with my students.” That hasn’t stopped her from setting goals, including the desire to be appointed U.S. Secretary of Education. After serving on leadership panels with national policy makers in Washington, she says she became determined “to be the true voice of the new teachers who are coming. We are going through a teacher evolution, and I want to bring education to the highest level and revered as a true profession.”

What that means for now is seeing “that light-bulb moment that every true educator knows” when a student figures out an answer. “A lot of my students have anxieties but they feel safe and welcome. Going to school shouldn’t be dreadful. I try to make it fun and engaging and quirky, whatever it takes.”