BELLINGHAM - Theo Mills makes a point of saying "good morning" to Shuksan Middle School students or even just smiling.
"It's important for them to know they're valuable," she said. "I always want kids to know I'm their advocate."
The 13-year employee at Shuksan was named state Classified School Employee of the Year in an awards ceremony May 9.
Mills was one of nine regional finalists for the award. She's an instructional assistant, meaning part of her job is providing extra help to students with homework or studying in the classroom.
A banner hangs above the front doors of the school announcing Mills' award. When the banner arrived, staff brought it into the cafeteria and held it up, and all the kids broke into applause, said Jay Jordan, principal at Shuksan Middle School.
"Theo is an example of all the employees we have in school, working with kids, who are not teachers," Jordan said. "We're all educators."
Mills helped start a girls' group with students. They meet Friday afternoons a few times a month and cook, play games or just talk. She also holds "Doughnut Fridays" where she brings doughnuts in the morning and talks to students about how they're doing.
"If we need someone to talk to, she'll be there," said seventh-grader Justice Longoria.
Mills commutes an hour from Everett every day to work at Shuksan. She said she's lucky to be paid for doing a job she loves.
"It's worth the commute," Mills said.
The state Teacher of the Year, Katie Brown, works at Shuksan Middle School as well.
"This staff collaborates and works as a team very well," Jordan said. "They have a real interest in being better at how they work together. (Mills) embodies that."
Mills is studying at Whatcom Community College and plans to transfer to Western Washington University to pursue a teaching degree. When students complain about homework, she tells them she's going to school, too.
"I'm one of them," Mills said. "Education is a lifelong process. You're never too old to learn and better yourself."
Reach Elana Pidgeon at 360-715-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.