Michelle Van Dyken doesn't go easy on her students.
Want proof? How about her decision to do away with school buses for students, requiring them to catch a ride with UTA instead?
It's the kind of "tough love" that has earned Van Dyken who mentors 51 special-needs adults, ages 18-21, at Canyons Transition Academy the prestigious Excellence in Teaching award. The statewide honor is given annually to 10 outstanding educators.
Now in her ninth year in education, Van Dyken teaches students the basics about life: How to use public transportation, shop at the grocery story, prepare a budget, access local libraries and apply for jobs.
"I just want every student who leaves the program to have a fulfilling purpose in life to feel like they are contributing members of society and are valued," said Van Dyken, whose students have disabilities such as Down syndrome and autism.
If special-needs students don't receive a diploma by the time they finish high school, they are eligible for "transition services" until they turn 22. That's where Van Dyken comes in.
Van Dyken, a third-generation teacher, said she was "humbled" by statewide recognition.
"My first thought," said Van Dyken, who won $1,500 from the UEA and partnering Arch Coal Foundation, "was every teacher deserves an award like this."
When the Jordan School District split in 2009, Van Dyken who had worked with special-needs students in the former district was given the chance to start a transition center in the Canyons district. Her vision was to treat students more like adults, perhaps with a little "tough love."
In the Jordan district, for instance, "the school bus would transport students anywhere they wanted to go," Van Dyken recalled. "I felt that the school bus isn't always going to be there."
So Van Dyken got rid of the school buses and let students learn to use the Utah Transit Authority system.
"I was nervous, and I was trying to get used to it," said Robyn Atkinson, 19, a Canyons Transition Academy student. "Then I got used to it, and now I'm not nervous anymore. I've been riding the bus a lot."
That philosophy extended to other services, as well. Instead of busing everyone to the same library to teach them how to check out a book, Van Dyken had students try it out in their own neighborhoods.
Van Dyken also drove by students' homes to figure out what other services might be available.
"I want their last day of school to look very similar to their adult life," she said. "A lot of these students with severe disabilities have been very sheltered, and it can be a huge shock when they [turn 22 and] are forced to leave."
Change wasn't easy. The educator had to persuade parents to buy into the program.
"It's OK to put your child with a severe disability on a bus," she told them.
Stephanie Hansen, a paraÂeducator who works under Van Dyken, praised her colleague.
"I don't know anyone else who could've pulled off what she did," she said. "It was a little overwhelming because [the program was built] from scratch. But it was exciting, too. It was a good opportunity for parents to see their kids succeed and excel and become more independent."
Last year, in the trenches of creating the new program, Van Dyken became so emotionally drained that she considered leaving her job. She asked herself, "Is it worth it?" Even though it proved to be the hardest year of her career, Van Dyken said it was also "the most rewarding and fulfilling."
"I don't know anyone more deserving [for the Excellence in Teaching award]," Hansen said. "She worked so hard starting the program. She put so much time and thought into it, and she cares about all her students and the employees under her. She is just the sweetest lady ever."
Van Dyken considers Hansen her "right-hand man," noting she couldn't do her job without the passionate paraeducator. She says she has a great team that is dedicated to helping students succeed as adults in the real world.
"I love seeing the little successes in every student," Van Dyken said. "There's not a day that goes by that I'm not just so proud of a student. ... I just see so much potential in them, and I just want them to shine."