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2018 School-Level Teacher of the Year Introductions

ACE Academy Teacher of the Year: Lynda Frederickson

Like many of ACE Academy’s students, teacher Lynda Frederickson chose to be there.

Sixteen years ago, she saw the sign seeking volunteers to help at what was then called CrossRoads High School and Middle School.  She went inside, learned about its purpose and signed up to volunteer.

She was working as a life skills coach for adults with intellectual disabilities upon their release from state institutions, and saw a new role for herself: teaching students with special needs.

Ms. Frederickson soon began working as a paraprofessional at CrossRoads while earning her certification to become a special education teacher.

“Our students know Ms. Frederickson loves being at ACE Academy and loves working with them,” Principal Richard Landolt said, noting that in addition to teaching English to the school’s Special Education students, she also sponsors the Student Council and Friends Club.

In her own words: “As a teacher of at-risk students, there is no greater joy than expanding the horizons of sometimes less-than-eager students.”


Arnold Mill Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Tasha Stancil

“Unforgettable” is how Tasha Stancil’s former students describe her.

“She is the reason why I love math so much to this day,” a high schooler said of his former Arnold Mill Elementary School fifth-grade math teacher.  “I had never met someone who cared so much for their students.”

Ms. Stancil, who found her calling as a child helping in her mother’s in-home day care, began her career 13 years ago at Arnold Mill and has served as the math department chair for the last seven years.

In her classroom, she’s developed new methods and real-world inspired activities for engaging students in learning like the Math Workshop and Math Recipe Project; and, at the school level, she organized the Mathlete program to encourage students to further their math knowledge.

In her own words: “As a math teacher, one question I hear routinely is ‘When am I ever going to use this?’  My answer is always the same: ‘You will use math every day of your life!’”


Avery Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Holly Miller

Holly Miller transforms her Avery Elementary School fifth-grade classroom every day.

One day, it’s a laboratory buzzing with little scientists assembling circuit boards under the guidance of their teacher and a visiting electrician.

The next day, students learn astronomy among the stars, as 3D technology projects constellations around them.

And the next, it’s a window into a country on the other side of the globe, as students talk with children there through video-conferencing.

Over the past 15 years, Ms. Miller has developed a formula for successful teaching: student collaboration, parent involvement, community participation, real-world applications and student creativity.

In the words of her colleagues, this adds up to a “simply amazing” educator — not only in her classroom, but also throughout the school due to her mentoring and through organizing events like STEAM Night.

In her own words: “I want educators and the general public to know that public school education is continuing to move in an innovative and progressive direction.”


Ball Ground Elementary School STEM Academy Teacher of the Year: Renay Wigley

Renay Wigley can tell you the moment her heart belonged to teaching.

She saw her fourth-grade teacher hug a classmate who had lost her home in a fire the night before, and the teacher then organized a school-wide collection to help the family.

After 23 years as an educator herself, the Ball Ground Elementary School STEM Academy third-grade teacher has filled hundreds of hearts with the same love.

Ms. Wigley, one parent said, is the reason her son now loves school.  And she did it by making sure the student knew she cared about him and that his success was important to her.

“I am sure that when my son is grown and looks back on the teachers that influenced him the most,” she said, he will remember Ms. Wigley as “the teacher that made learning come alive for him.”

In her own words: “When students feel in control of what they are learning and what they choose to learn, they feel more connected and more enthused about the learning process.”


Bascomb Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Judy Eason

Judy Eason’s teaching at Bascomb Elementary School is guided by a simple, but very important rule: she treats her students the way she would want her own children to be treated.

Her children are what led her to teaching.  Ms. Eason worked in business, but upon the birth of her first child, became a stay-at-home mom.  When her two children headed off to school, she wanted to go, too… so she headed back to school to become a teacher.

Ms. Eason earned her education degree, and for the last 13 years has been a teacher of elementary school students… and her fellow teachers.

“She doesn’t just affect the students in her room,” a colleague said, “her hopeful attitude spreads through the building.  Positivity truly is contagious.”

In her own words: “Being a teacher is a privilege that sometimes gets diminished under the stress and data collection of the day-to-day work, but no other career can have as much influence on young lives than a teacher.”


Boston Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Jennifer Haygood

Jennifer Haygood’s Boston Elementary School second-graders last year petitioned the Principal.

They wanted Ms. Haygood to be their third-grade teacher, too.

Principal Izell McGruder said they made such a compelling case, he complied.

“Relationship building is hallmark to her day-to-day interaction with her students, resulting in them giving her their very best efforts,” he said, noting she also has developed strong instructional techniques over her 11-year-career.  “She represents the best of what this profession has to honor.”

And she’s even more, according to a student who chose her as the subject for the “My Hero” essay.

“Ms. Haygood is my hero because she is nice,” the student wrote.  “Another reason is she is easy to talk to.  One more reason is she listens to me when I try to tell her something.”

In her own words: “When students understand that they are able to make mistakes and learn from them, they are able to be challenged and pushed farther and grow to their full potential.”


Canton Elementary School STEM Academy Teacher of the Year: Cathy Fitts

Cathy Fitts believes that every one of her students, no matter the challenges that most of them face, can succeed.

It’s this faith that leads her to constantly seek out new ways to connect with them… whether through using microphones to help them practice speaking English aloud, giving a student with speech issues a speaking role in the class play or teaching children to use technology they don’t have at home, but will need to understand for college and careers.

“She embodies all the qualities that are vital to empowering students to be motivated, challenged and supported to reach their individual learning goals with success,” a colleague said of Ms. Fitts, who has served as a teacher for 13 years, with the last seven focused on teaching English Learner students.

In her own words: “I fell in love with the challenges and joys that come with working with this group of students.  I enjoy helping them to accomplish the standards, whether it is making giant leaps or little steps.”


Carmel Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Heidi Sansone

Heidi Sansone gave up a successful career with a top investment bank to become a teacher.

Inspired by seeing her own small children begin learning, Ms. Sansone headed back to college, earned a master’s degree in education and, for the past four years, has worked as a teacher at Carmel Elementary School.

“My previous career allowed me the opportunity to realize that I wanted more from my life’s work than a paycheck,” she said.  “Rather than saying ‘I have a job,’ I can say with the greatest enthusiasm and pride, ‘I am a teacher.’”

She made the right choice, according to parents and colleagues, who praise her instructional technique, positive attitude, work ethic and passion.

“She makes me want to be a better teacher,” a fellow teacher said.

In her own words: “Students deserve to know that their teacher believes in them and encourages them to believe in themselves.  Students deserve to learn how not to accept ‘good enough,’ but rather accept only ‘better than I was yesterday.’”


CCSD Preschool Centers Teacher of the Year: Laurie Maselli

Laurie Maselli always knew she would be a teacher, but it took a few years in the classroom to find her specific calling.

While teaching fourth grade, she was drawn to students with the most challenges, which led her to seek certification to teach Special Education.

Her first year in Special Education was teaching fifth grade, but it broke her heart, as so many had decided they couldn’t be successful.  She helped transform their mind-set over the year, but knew she could do more by starting with the youngest students.

Now she’s making a difference in the lives of her Johnston Preschool Center special needs students and their families.

As one parent said, through Ms. Maselli she “witnessed the significant impact that a teacher can have in a single child’s life, like she did for my son.”

In her own words: “When families keep in touch long after their children are gone from my class because they know that their child was loved big and well, that means everything!”


Cherokee High School Teacher of the Year: Shannon Hemphill

Shannon Hemphill learned her most valuable lesson as a teacher a decade ago in her first year teaching at Cherokee High School.

It wasn’t about technique or standards.  It wasn’t a hands-on lesson plan or effective use of technology.  It was about the challenges her students face.

A student was failing her English class.  He knew the material, but never did his homework.  It was a mystery.  Until he was arrested for trying to steal a warm coat at Walmart.

It was then that Ms. Hemphill realized her role was just as much noticer as it was teacher, and she needed to practice as much concern as pedagogy.  And it’s a lesson she’s never forgotten.

“She’s the real deal,” a former colleague said, praising her love for teaching and desire to show children love and encouragement.

In her own words: “Parents and teachers need to have more conversations.  Having positive conversations about solutions rather than argumentative confrontations about problems will help students to be successful.”


Clark Creek Elementary School STEM Academy Teacher of the Year: Nicole Brookshire

Nicole Brookshire chose her career path because of her own struggles in school.

Reading was hard for her, but she never had the courage to ask for help.  Her teachers continued to encourage her, and, as a result, she kept trying until she succeeded.

“I wanted to be that teacher who does not give up on a student because they do not get ‘it’ right away,” said Ms. Brookshire, who began her career seven years ago and now is an Early Intervention Program teacher at Clark Creek Elementary School STEM Academy.

She is a “true interventionist,” according to Principal Joey Moss, who says Ms. Brookshire possesses a gift for analyzing data and a talent for teaching students in the way they learn best.

“She’s a Principal’s dream teacher,” she said.

In her own words: “It’s my job as a teacher to figure out how my students learn and what strategies are effective for them all.  I love proving to them that they can accomplish greatness!”


Clayton Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Rebecca Heard

Clayton Elementary School first-grade teacher Rebecca Heard sees a big picture when it comes to student success.

And in that picture are not just the student and his teacher, but also his parents and everyone who works at the school.

Here’s one of those pictures: during a parent workshop, a mom shared with Ms. Heard she was so inspired by her child’s determination to better himself, that she began studying English and taking classes to earn her GED.

“I have never seen someone in this field handle situations with students, co-workers and parents and be able to achieve the positive results Mrs. Heard has patiently and diligently accomplished,” a colleague said of the eight-year teacher.  “She stands as a leader who uses resources to find answers that turn her hard work into great accomplishments.”

In her own words: “At the heart of who I am as an educator is the desire not only to educate students, but also to empower their families.”


Creekland Middle School Teacher of the Year: Chad Lanier

Chad Lanier will tell you: teaching social studies can be a challenge, and even more so when the students are middle schoolers.

“Boring lessons and unneeded information,” he said of what they expect when they walk in the door.

But that’s not what they find in his seventh-grade classroom at Creekland Middle School.

Instead, the 13-year teacher develops lessons that connect to student’s lives, such as showing them how hurricanes affect economics, or what life is like for kids their age living in other countries. “Students need to realize that what goes on around them on a daily basis impacts their lives,” he said.

“Because of his extensive knowledge of Social Studies, he is the go-to educator for the department,” Principal Dr. Sue Zinkil said.  “He is truly a dedicated, remarkable educator.”

In his own words: “Education is changing, and all stakeholders need to change with it.  Even if that means the teachers need to get out of their comfort zone in order to be effective.  Do it.”


Creekview High School Teacher of the Year: Jason Hardin

Jason Hardin coaches Creekview High School students in his chemistry classroom, on the soccer field and in life.

Coach Hardin, one parent said, is the “lighthouse” that guided her child out of a dangerous channel and toward success.

“My son was headed down a path most parents fear,” she said, but Coach Hardin spotted this and would encourage him: “You did good, but you could do better!”  “I’d like to say those eight words spoken by Coach Hardin turned my son’s life around.  Truth is, it was Coach Hardin’s everyday interactions that turned his life around.  He treated him like he was an asset to this world.”

Colleagues agree the 16-year teacher deserves high praise: “Many students who have had the privilege of being his students have told me that he is not only the best teacher they ever had, but one of the most important influences in their lives.”

In his own words: “I believe teaching is about inspiring students to want to learn more.”


Dean Rusk Middle School Teacher of the Year: Mindee Calabrese

Middle school can be challenging, especially for a shy student.

Mindee Calabrese knows this very well – not only as a Dean Rusk Middle School teacher, but also as someone who faced the same struggles.

She remembers learning in middle school that a teacher had told her parents: “Mindee will struggle through life and probably not amount to much because she will not interact with others.”

Her parents were reluctant to tell her, but Ms. Calabrese is glad they did, as she used this knowledge to build her self-esteem and pursue teaching.

“Now, as a teacher, I am determined to find ways to let my students shine in my classroom,” she said.

And she succeeds, as one parent said, due to the “welcoming spirit” she shows to all.

In her own words: “Our goal as a unit is to prepare our students for the world that awaits them, and if we do not do this together as a teacher, parent, school and community, we are setting our students up for failure.”


E.T. Booth Middle School Teacher of the Year: John Wilson

E.T. Booth Middle School teacher John Wilson never envisioned himself as a teacher.

But after returning home from six years of active duty with the Marines and starting a small company with some friends, an old high school teammate asked if he would help coach a youth baseball team.

“Eventually, I realized I was much happier on the field, working with those kids, than I was working at my job,” said Mr. Wilson, who soon headed to college on the GI Bill, earned his education degree and, 12 years ago, began teaching.

He has taught and coached more than a thousand students since, like one who recently made Eagle Scout and credits Mr. Wilson for his guidance along the way.

“He’s one of the best mentors a student could have,” the former student said.

In his own words: “I get to influence the lives of 130 students every day, and thousands over the course of my career.  I get to be that positive role model for the kid who doesn’t otherwise have one.”


Etowah High School Teacher of the Year: Brandon Grummer

Brandon Grummer left a career in architecture and engineering to create a simulated firm in his Etowah High School classroom.

Students in the program he started 11 years ago experience what it would be like working in the field through hands-on design challenges with deadlines and expectations, but coupled with the support and collaboration of a classroom.

Partnerships, such as one that gave students the opportunity to tour the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the builders, open windows and doors for students.

“I can honestly say that I obtained more real-world, practical knowledge in his classes than I did in any other classes in high school,” said a former student, who now is employed with a design firm.  “I learned to work on long-term goals efficiently, while meeting specific deadlines and managing several projects at the same time.”

In his own words: “I have a passion for embedding soft skills training seamlessly into my classroom environment, so that my students will graduate with true college and career readiness.”


Free Home Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Kelly Wilkie

Kelly Wilkie became an educator due to the positive influence of an elementary school teacher.

“She built rapport and genuinely cared, not only for me, but for all of her students,” said Ms. Wilkie, who has taught for 17 years.  “This caring, along with fun and engaging opportunities, helped me realize that I, too, wanted to impact the lives of children in a positive way.”

And she’s doing just that at Free Home Elementary School, where kindergartners, their parents and her colleagues admire and appreciate her for the consistent care she shows for all of them.

“She was one of the first educators I heard refer to her students as ‘friends,’” a colleague said.  “It’s a term that I adopted from her after seeing how her students responded to this mutually respected relationship.”

In her own words: “Children learn best when they feel safe and an active part of something.  When we feel loved, appreciated and secure as individuals, we perform at a higher level.”


Freedom Middle School Teacher of the Year: Janelle Haysman

Reading a street sign, so they can stay safe and navigate their world.

Learning to tell time, so they can meet up with friends for an activity.

Understanding kitchen measurements, so they can cook a favorite recipe.

Janelle Haysman, for the past four years, has endeavored daily to teach her Special Education students at Freedom Middle School these valuable skills.

The lessons may take many months of practice to become rote, but her students, and Ms. Haysman, take great pride in accomplishing them.

“She works tirelessly with every parent to ensure she is making the biggest difference in these students’ lives that she can possibly make,” one parent shared.  “Mrs. Haysman truly does love each and every one of her students.”

In her own words: “I feel greatly privileged and humbled to be one small part of an immense team working to help each student become a productive, successful adult.  My greatest accomplishments can be seen simply by looking at my students.”


Hasty Elementary School Fine Arts Academy Teacher of the Year: Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson’s successes aren’t measured by a standardized test.

They are the shy first-grader with Tourette’s Syndrome, who 20 years later, invited Mr. Thompson to attend her wedding.

They are the scattered third-grader, who now is enrolled in honors classes as a high school senior.

And they are the struggling English Learner student, who credits Mr. Thompson with her decision to pursue college to study medicine.

“You changed my future,” she wrote. “Thank you for always believing in me and being there when I needed a friend.”

It’s successes like these that have inspired the Hasty Elementary School Fine Arts Academy teacher over his 26-year career and led to him twice being named Teacher of the Year by his colleagues.

In his own words: “Children need to be allowed to be children.  They need time to live, to learn lessons that reach beyond the test, to find meaning and purpose in something other than a checklist of demands on their time.”


Hickory Flat Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Jennifer Bledsoe

“Legendary,” is how Hickory Flat Elementary School’s Principal describes teacher Jennifer Bledsoe.

The 17-year teacher is known for the care she shows students and her creative lessons that go beyond the textbook.

One of those lessons is kindness, exemplified by the school’s #BeKind campaign, and which has come full circle for her.  Ms. Bledsoe’s daughter was born with a syndrome that affected her physical development, and students sometimes were hurtful.

“I’ve witnessed the change of atmosphere as each class embraced kindness, acceptance and the masterpiece of each student,” she said, noting now that her own daughter comes home from school laughing instead of crying.

Ms. Bledsoe made her own contribution to the campaign: manners lessons for fifth-graders, which included a visit to an assisted living center to practice their skills and an “Amazing Shake” finale event with local leaders.

In her own words: “When kindness as a choice permeates each conversation, you create an atmosphere of trust and acceptance that leads to deeper understanding in and outside the classroom.”


Holly Springs Elementary School STEM Academy Teacher of the Year: Valerie Wallace

The accounting world’s loss has been education’s gain.

Twenty-five years ago, Valerie Wallace wondered if she should have given up her childhood dream of teaching for a business career.  Later that day, a newscaster announced an actor’s passing too soon: “You never know when it’s your time to go,” he said, “so you might as well do everything in life you ever wanted.”

Ms. Wallace felt as if he was speaking to her.  Soon after, her husband received a raise, affording her the opportunity to fulfill her dream.

Now her Holly Springs Elementary School STEM Academy students benefit from both paths, as she crunches assessment data to identify their individual learning needs and teaches them math through checkbooks and accounting.

She also shares her knowledge with colleagues; as one said: “She taught me how to track and analyze student data long before it was trendy.”

In her own words: “My greatest accomplishment is building lasting relationships with the young people entrusted to me to make a difference in their lives.”


Indian Knoll Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Angela Barnes

Angela Barnes’s least favorite words when talking about creativity in the classroom: “We don’t have time for that.”

Ms. Barnes makes the time in her Indian Knoll Elementary School second-grade classroom, which is why she’s a favorite among students, highly requested by parents and referred to by her Principal as “an administrator’s dream.”

Her students “time travel” during social studies class by closing their eyes… and opening them to see Ms. Barnes dressed as a historical figure!  Her classroom transforms… into Jurassic Park, a campground, a spy lab.  A video screen connects them to the world through video-conferencing with Denali National Park, classrooms across the country and Longwood Gardens.

Inspired by her favorite childhood teachers and TV’s Miss Bliss, Ms. Barnes has spent the last 13 years teaching more than 300 elementary schoolers that there is magic and joy in learning… if you only make the time.

In her own words: “Teach in ways that inspire creativity and innovation.  Show students they matter.”


Johnston Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Erin Myers

Erin Myers works to open windows to opportunities her students otherwise would never experience.

Some have never been to the zoo, played on a sports team or visited the beach… which makes it harder for them to relate to many lessons.

Here’s one window: Ms, Myers was teaching a group of English Learners at Johnston Elementary School about the difference between sleet, hail and freezing rain.

The discussion turned to how salt is used on icy roads during inclement weather, so Ms. Myers used the example of homemade ice cream.  “What’s that?” her students asked.

The next day they found out, as Ms. Myers brought a churn to school.  Students took turns cranking the handle, conducting experiments and learned about science in the most delicious way.

“Erin’s empathy and love for the kids always shines through,” a colleague said.

In her own words: “My greatest accomplishments are the small moments when students discover a new interest or accomplish a difficult task.”


Knox Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Amy Dickinson

Amy Dickinson changed her major at the end of her first year of college from nursing to education.

And while she’s definitely a teacher – an outstanding one, in fact, according to her colleagues – she could be called a nurse, too.

For she shows great care and compassion for her students, not only in the hours she spends planning lessons and continuing her own education, but also in the quiet gestures like the donation of clothes and shoes to help students in financial need.

“She is laser-focused on doing everything she can to meet each student’s needs,” a colleague said, noting that Ms. Dickinson shares her prescriptions for success, tested over the last 20 years, with fellow teachers, too.  “She is a role model for others in our building and beyond.  Her enthusiasm for her subject areas is contagious.”

In her own words: “I know I am in the right business of working with children.  Being young at heart really helps me connect with students and have a passion for teaching.”


Liberty Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Danielle Kononen

Danielle Kononen sees her Liberty Elementary School students as more than kindergartners.

They’re citizens of the world, who need to learn their student performance standards… and their potential to change their world.

Like collecting hundreds of toys for her Teddy Bear on Patrol service learning project to benefit children in crisis, who now receive a teddy bear from the police officer or firefighter who responds.

Or “traveling” the world to learn about other children’s cultures and traditions, complete with a passport stamped as students “visit” countries during the week-long lesson.

And making paper hearts to understand the impact of hurting others… they fold and crease these hearts, as they remember how others have hurt them, and unfold them as they share their stories with classmates.

Lessons, parents say, that make her a remarkable and beloved teacher.

In her own words:  “All children want to feel worthy and loved.  Be the teacher who makes a difference and positively changes a student’s decision because all you did was care about them.”


Little River Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Megan Mayfield

Integrated technology, data analysis, co-taught teaching – Little River Elementary School teacher Megan Mayfield is a master of the trends and innovation happening in education today.

But before she mastered the latest, she became an expert at the greatest: connecting with students.

Ms. Mayfield found her calling in high school as a tutor for first-graders at a neighboring elementary school.

“I quickly realized, that without building a solid relationship with each student, only limited progress could be made,” she said.

So she learned their hobbies and passions and incorporated those interests into her tutoring lessons. And as she strengthened those relationships, “I started to see tremendous gains in each child’s reading abilities.”

The lesson has stuck with Ms. Mayfield through her 13 years of teaching and encouraging.

“She leads by example in calling out greatness in her students,” one colleague said.

In her own words: “Authentic relationships benefit all those involved and can serve to continuously improve Georgia’s public education system.”


Macedonia Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Kirsten Hargadon

Before Kirsten Hargadon began teaching in a classroom, she taught in a hospital.

She worked at Shriner’s Burn Hospital in Boston, and there learned how teaching with humor and delight not only can engage students, it also can improve their life.

“I delighted when they responded with a smile or a positive move forward,” she said.  “I learned how to love children where they are and push them to where they need to be.”

Now in her 13th year of teaching in a classroom, that same magic happens when she watches her Macedonia Elementary School students respond to a lesson, which she continues to embed with laughter amid learning.

“The students are having so much fun,” Principal Dr. Carolyn Daugherty said, “it is obvious that they are unaware of how much they are learning.”

In her own words: “Teaching is a performance.  A performance that ends not in a standing ovation, but rather in a successful, motivated and limitless personal endeavor, better known as an individual’s life.”


Mill Creek Middle School Teacher of the Year: Kathleen Burns

Kathleen Burns heard her calling whispering in middle school.

As a student at Woodstock Middle School, she joined the Friends Club, through which she befriended and supported special needs classmates and saw their teachers in action.

One of these special friends, after her health conditions grew worse, passed away in high school.

“Although her life was cut short, her impact on me and many others will live on forever,” said Ms. Burns, who began teaching eight years ago and carries the memory of this friend, and many more special needs students since then, in her heart.

Ms. Burns’ heart for these students is clear to their parents.  “She is just what my son needed,” a parent said of Ms. Burns’ ability to make her son feel as if he could accomplish anything in school and in life.  “We are thankful for her, daily.”

In her own words: “Through my cheerfulness and relevant approach, students are encouraged to work past their challenges and into recognizing and applying their strengths.”


Mountain Road Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Amanda Farmer

Amanda Farmer began her career working with children with autism as a behavioral therapist.

One day she realized, while she was succeeding in her goals to improve their lives, she could do more.

She went back to school to earn her master’s degree in special education and became a teacher four years ago.

At Mountain Road Elementary School, she not only encourages children to achieve independence through acquiring skills, she also helps them put those skills into practice with peers.

“Amanda is a big part of bridging the gap between Special Education and regular education classes,” a colleague said.  “We all want respect and to be included.  Amanda helps foster this daily.”

In her own words: “When my students have more exposure to their general education peers and ‘typical’ behaviors, they learn, grow and develop appropriate academic and social behaviors.  Not only is it beneficial to students with disabilities, it also benefits ‘typical developing’ students who learn patience, empathy and overall kindness to others who may be different from them.”


Oak Grove Elementary School Fine Arts Academy Teacher of the Year: Heather Burgess

Heather Burgess joined Oak Grove Elementary School Fine Arts Academy as the school transformed into an integrated arts showplace.

Her kindergarten classroom now serves as a model for effectively using the arts to teach children across all subjects, and she shares the lessons she creates with colleagues.

When her kindergarteners study polar bears, they read and write about them, but they also design books or slideshows and then construct their own multi-media polar bear sculpture.

To learn the difference between day and night, they film stop-motion videos of the sky, devise theatrical scenes depicting how activities vary during the day and analyze music to determine when it takes place.

“My son has come home many times singing songs he learned in class, reciting poems that Mrs. Burgess has taught him, as well as reciting mathematics and sight words,” a parent said.

In her own words: “Through having a fun and engaging learning environment, students gain a love of learning.”

R.M. Moore Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Amberly Brown

Coach Amberly Brown thinks outside the gym.

For her, PE class is just the beginning of how students can stay active and learn about sports and health while at R.M. Moore Elementary School.  She leads an after-school jogging club, encourages students to play sports and collaborates with colleagues on new ideas.

Feeling that “more could be done” this school year, Coach Brown worked with her fellow specials teachers to create “Collaboration Fridays.”

Each Friday, the entire grade level heads to the gym for a lesson blending art, music and movement… more physical activity, more learning and more fun.

For “The Lion King” lesson, students created masks, learned dances and song lyrics from the musical, and then put it all together for a performance at the end of class attended by administrators.

“Amberly is one of those teachers you come across once in a great while,” Principal Jan Adamson said of the 20-year educator.

In her own words: “Disinterest is infectious within the classroom and detrimental to learning.”


River Ridge High School Teacher of the Year: Amanda Farist

How does River Ridge High School teacher Amanda Farist earn praise like this from high schoolers?

“Ms. Farist is an amazing teacher who brings a light into every classroom she enters and touches the hearts and minds of every student she teaches.”

One word: Vegas.

No, it’s not a field trip — it’s the Vegas Circle, as in “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” where her composition students share personal writings throughout the year.  In this Circle, they gain feedback from her and their peers, and Ms. Farist shares her own writing, too.

This culminates in a personal memoir, a eulogy to their high school self, and students more confident in their writing, themselves and their future.

As that same student puts it, while in most English classes, you “talk about dead poets and write essays,” Ms. Farist “keeps her class relevant by tying it to stuff going on in our lives.”

In her own words: “Teaching is about educating much more than the head.”


Sequoyah High School Teacher of the Year: Julie Geoghagan

All teachers have good lesson plans that get the job done.

But a great lesson, according to Sequoyah High School teacher Julie Geoghagan, is one that incorporates a student’s knowledge, new information and fun.

Like her AP Statistics lesson that starts with a field trip to play laser tag and concludes with creating presentations analyzing data questions like “Are boys better players than girls?”

Students were engaged, excited about statistics… and it’s a lesson they still talk about to this day.

“Her class has to be the envy of the school,” a colleague said of the 21-year teacher. “Her students all love and adore her, but they’re quick to add she’s not easy, but she’s fair and she cares.”

In her own words: “Not every lesson is going to be fun or entertaining, nor will all lessons be significant to every student, but if a teacher can incorporate a meaningful, fun lesson every so often, it will make all the difference in a class.”


Sixes Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Dr. Kyle Shugart

Dr. Kyle Shugart not only has been a teacher of hundreds of students over her 28-year career, she’s also been a teacher of teachers.

Dr. Shugart’s passion for the profession led her to earn a doctorate degree and numerous accolades from her peers including a previous Teacher of the Year honor.

“She demonstrates every day she is a leader in our school and a winner in the classroom,” Principal Cindy Crews said.

A recent example is her service as the school’s Professional Learning Teacher Leader, successfully guiding the use of Professional Learning Communities to promote collaboration among teachers.

In her own words: “How can any teacher be singled out for their greatest contribution when what we do in the classroom is such a collective effort?  Every teacher is molded by administrators, colleagues who see the best in each other, and by faculty and staff who work tirelessly to contribute to the education of every student.  The work of a teacher is the work of a family.”


Teasley Middle School Teacher of the Year: Cassandra Fainter

Middle school isn’t at the top of most young teacher’s dream job lists.

But for Teasley Middle School seventh-grade teacher Cassandra Fainter, who has wanted to be a teacher as long as she can remember, there was no other place to be.

“People always seem surprised when I say I teach middle school,” the eight-year teacher said.  “Quite simply, middle school is not easy.  It seems rare for people to look back on their middle school years and think of them positively.  That is why my goal as an educator is to make these middle school students’ lives a little better each day.”

And she’s doing just that, as students praise her as the best teacher they’ve ever had.  “If all teachers were like Mrs. Fainter,” one said, “all students would succeed.”

In her own words: “Whether it is helping them academically or just noticing their new haircut, creating and maintaining relationships with the students in my classroom is the most important part of my job.”

Tippens Education Center Teacher of the Year: Kristen Irwin

The daughter of a social worker, Kristen Irwin learned at a young age what can happen when children don’t have positive and caring relationships with adults.

That knowledge influenced her decision to pick a profession where she could provide that positive relationship for children, and she chose Special Education.

After serving seven years as a Special Education paraprofessional for the School District, she pursued a degree to become a full-time teacher.

For the last three years, Ms. Irwin has excelled at Tippens Education Center, where, as Principal Kelly Strickland said, “She is highly intuitive and just seems to ‘know’ what her students need… she has a true love of children and is remarkable at her chosen career.”

In her own words: “My belief in teaching special learners is to not see them for what they are, but what they can become.  To use each lesson as an opportunity to grow the student into a thriving and independent individual and to be seen as a valued individual in the community.”


Woodstock Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Carla Page

For Carla Page, teaching students with different learning needs is very personal.

She decided on career in education a decade ago after her oldest child was born with profound developmental disabilities.

Today, she teaches Woodstock Elementary School’s Gifted students, who come with their own special needs including constant academic and creative challenges.

And Ms. Page delivers, with an ever-growing array of collaborative projects ranging from a virtual cross-country trip filled with research and discovery, to constellation studies featuring video-conferences with International Space Station scientists.

Students shared these reviews: “I love how she turns her learning activities into games.”  “We always learn new things in her classroom and she makes it fun.”  “I am very excited that Mrs. Page is going to get a fish for our classroom… I love Mrs. Page!”

In her own words: “Children are the reason I love being a teacher.  My work is purposeful because I believe the children deserve only the best I can give them, every day.”


Woodstock High School Teacher of the Year: Jamie Vogan

Jamie Vogan teaches Woodstock High School students who face significant challenges.

As English Learners, her students struggle with everyday tasks their classmates find simple, and their lives are further complicated by poverty, their parents’ legal status and feelings of alienation.

Ms. Vogan, in her ninth year teaching, doesn’t shy away from hard topics or crucial conversations, and makes her lessons not only about learning English, but also learning about a new home.

“Students feel accepted by Jamie and appreciate how she holds them to high standards,” a colleague said.  “They know Jamie is a change agent.”

In her own words: “I cultivated a reputation among my students that I was someone who would be patient to overcome language barriers to learn more about them, to help them, and to be someone who would speak up for them.  I hope they look back and know they had a teacher who cared about them, was an advocate for them and would listen and be there when they needed someone.”