2023 School Teacher of the Year Profiles
Our teachers are amazing, which is why we share the story of a school’s Teacher of the Year every week! Special thanks to our 2023 Legacy Makers: CCSD Teachers of the Year Celebration's Presenting Sponsors: Cherokee County Educational Foundation, Credit Union of Georgia, Northside Hospital Cherokee and Shottenkirk Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram of Canton.
ACTIVE Academies: Julia Burks
Julia Burks has taught on both sides of the world and but found her home at ACTIVE Academies.
After teaching in Thailand and China, Ms. Burks accepted a post teaching science and connections electives to sixth-graders through seniors in the ACE Academy program at ACTIVE. The program offers a second-chance opportunity to students expelled due to behavior.
“When I tell others that I work at an alternative school for students under expulsion, their faces are shocked and the most common response is to ask ‘why?’” the five-year teacher said. “I would love for the world to know why. Why these children matter, why we should have patience and compassion for them, why we should not stop believing in them, and why these are some of the most resilient souls I have ever met.”
Ms. Burks said she has a heart for students with obstacles to overcome, and she is so proud of how her colleagues teach, support and care for these students every day.
Principal Andy Hall praises Ms. Burks for her dedication to building positive relationships with these students “even when they are sometimes reluctant or flat-out resistant” due to past experiences.
“Ms. Burks finds ways to motivate, to relate and to instruct when others have perhaps not had the same success with students,” he said. “She makes sure that every student gets happy birthday wishes, a positive word or even just some grace on a bad day, and this makes students realize that she cares about them as people, not just their grades in her class.”
In her own words: “It is vital that students understand that their paths are malleable and that they can achieve greatness. I strive to help them see their own potential.”
Arnold Mill ES: Jill Dittus
Jill Dittus early on knew her calling was teaching. Halfway through her 28-year career, teaching led to her second calling: serving as a foster parent.
One of her own students inspired her to take on this additional role to support her community’s children.
“One day, the kids in my kindergarten class we’re talking about what they wanted. One of the boys mentioned what he wanted was a real mom and dad. His comments broke my heart and started me on my journey into foster care,” said Ms. Dittus, whose colleagues honored her as their 2023 Teacher of the Year. “Being a foster mom is hard. Being a teacher is hard. But I can honestly say that both have made me a better, more compassionate and patient person.”
Her principal and colleagues praise Ms. Dittus for the great care and patience she shows to all. Her current role as a Special Education co-teacher often puts her in classrooms with students struggling to overcome academic and behavior challenges.
“Ms. Dittus continues to teach and meet the needs of all her students” as they work together through these challenges, Principal Daniel Fuller said. “She continues to teach with grace, effectiveness, caring, love and support with never a complaint. She is highly respected and admired by all teachers and staff at Arnold Mill. She builds strong relationships and high levels of trust with her students every year and becomes involved in her students’ lives and families.”
In her own words: “I want my students to walk into my room each morning laughing, smiling and excited to learn. It is my role as a teacher to create that positive school culture.”
Avery ES: Rachel Blackman
Every morning, the third-graders in Rachel Blackman’s classroom at Avery Elementary School share their goals for the day.
They can be to reach a new reading level, to pass another i-Ready math test, to be a better friend … anything they hope to achieve, whether academic or personal. They also can share whatever else is on their mind or feels important to them that day.
At the end of the day, students close with their afternoon meeting, which is a time for reflecting on what they achieved, who helped them and what they need to work on more.
“These meetings have helped create a family environment within our classroom,” said the 21-year educator, who also coordinates Avery’s After School Program and was in this school year’s CCSD Teacher Leader Academy class. “They have helped build a positive classroom community of kind, respectful and caring learners.”
The extra time Ms. Blackman invests in getting to know her students, listening to them and encouraging them does not go unnoticed by parents and colleagues.
“The culture of learning established within her classroom sets clearly defined high expectations for all students. Mrs. Blackman shows her students daily that she believes they can succeed,” shared a colleague, whose daughter also was in her class. “She has the ability to connect and communicate using a student-centered approach that fosters creativity, expression and leadership.”
In her own words: “When students feel valued, supported and respected only then will they be open to learning and stepping out of their comfort zone. Establishing relationships built on mutual trust and respect helps students feel supported.”
Ball Ground ES STEM Academy: Amy Youngblood
Amy Youngblood discovered her heart for helping special needs children as a volunteer in her high school’s peer helpers program.
Now as a Special Education teacher, she has created the same opportunity for younger students by starting Friends Clubs at multiple elementary schools, including Ball Ground ES STEM Academy where she currently teaches.
“Friends Clubs build relationships and create a culture of inclusivity among the students with special needs and their general education peers,” the 27-year educator said. “Friendships are formed that often extend past the classroom and students, special needs and general educational peers, learn from one another.”
While regarded as a highly skilled teacher adept at identifying the best instructional techniques to meet each student’s learning needs, Ms. Youngblood also earns strong praise from colleagues and her students’ parents for how she builds relationships.
“Beyond the classroom, Mrs. Amy has made a lasting impression on our family,” one parent shared, noting Ms. Youngblood’s summer swim classes for special needs children and her volunteerism for the Cherokee County Special Olympics, including as its swim team coach. “I know from other parents she has shown up to extra-curricular activities like basketball games, and she even made a cameo at my son’s birthday party. Mrs. Amy truly cares, and my son is so lucky she is part of his journey!”
In her own words: “When I look back over my career, I see my greatest successes were because of the connections I made with my students and their families. Making connections, breaking down barriers, addressing emotional issues and finding motivators are most often the keys to student success.”
Bascomb ES: Winn Ward
Cultivating a growth mindset in her students is a passion for Bascomb Elementary School teacher Winn Ward.
The 16-year educator first researched the concept when she began teaching in the early intervention program, which provides additional support to students at risk of falling behind academically.
“Growth mindset inspires students to believe that, with hard work and time, their abilities or talents can improve, which stands in stark contrast to a fixed mindset that promotes the idea that such improvement is unlikely,” said Ms. Ward, who has earned Teacher of the Year honors at three schools. “And I have discovered that the longer I teach growth mindset, the more I am able to observe the students’ increased motivation and engagement – even when work is challenging.”
Ms. Ward now serves as a co-teacher to support Special Education students in regular classrooms and earns praise from students’ parents and her colleagues for her instructional and relationship building skills.
“She meets every child at their level academically and behaviorally,” a colleague shared. “Families respect Mrs. Ward and fully support her because they know she truly cares about their child and their well-being.”
In her own words: “Ensuring that my students feel connected to me, to their school and, above all, to their community is of utmost important to me as a Special Education teacher. Special Education learners can easily disconnect from their educational world if they are not provided the appropriate amount of care, love and connection, which is why I strive to provide a sense of belonging to my students.”
Boston ES: Hannah Rogé
Boston Elementary School teacher Hannah Roge is known for her amazing school spirit.
She’s the one in the costume, even an inflatable T Rex suit – for spirit days … or just car rider line duty.
What she’s equally known for among her colleagues and her students’ parents is her determination to help struggling students.
Ms. Roge, who is beginning her 10th year as a teacher, helped establish a new initiative to lead students in overcoming their academic challenges.
The program, called Bear Boost, began for first grade, which is what Ms. Roge teaches, with a dedicated intervention time for 20 minutes a day, three days a week. It proved so successful across first grade classes, that it’s expanding.
Her dedication to struggling students is not limited to those with academic concerns, but also any kind of hurdle before them. A parent shared what happened when her daughter, a student in Ms. Roge’s class, began suffering hair loss.
“Ms. Roge was there through it all, even attending my daughter’s trip to try on wigs when the hair loss was so substantial and we made the difficult decision to shave off what remained,” the mom shared. “My daughter personally requested Ms. Roge’s presence, and I know it was because Ms. Roge makes her feel good about herself and makes scary things seem less scary. I once heard that when your life is dark, the lights in your life shine brighter. Ms. Roge is a light.”
In her own words: “Students are the basis of why we do what we do. We, as teachers, need to put an emphasis on building relationships with our students.”
Carmel ES: Marissa Burulcich
Marissa Burulcich sees the weekend journal her first-graders at Carmel Elementary School keep all year as a lesson that defines her as a teacher.
Every Monday, students write an entry about their weekend, and can add a photo from their weekend’s activities. Students then share what they wrote about with their peers, who give them feedback.
The students grow as writers through this practice, and, by the end of the year, also have created a keepsake for themselves and their family.
“This encompasses everything I believe a good lesson should be: ongoing, tangible and meaningful,” the 18-year educator said. “Students are motivated to write and share week after week because they know they are building something significant and really enjoy sharing and receiving feedback from their peers.”
Ms. Burulcich also builds something significant every day, according to her colleagues, with her intentional lessons and through the positive relationships she develops with students. Another example of this is her work this past school year to help create the school’s positive behavior program, the Carmel Colts Ranch, which celebrates kindness and community service.
“She is truly a person,” a colleague shared, “who can serve as a model for others.”
In her own words: “Every student deserves a safe and loving place to go each and every day. It is sometimes easy to forget that school break is not always a happy time for all students; not every student has a warm bed and food to go home to. Children should feel safe and loved at all times, but if that is not happening at home, let it be at school.”
CCSD Preschool Centers: Beth Piccirillo
CCSD Preschool Centers Special Education teacher Beth Piccirilli is a talented educator, whose gifts extend beyond her teaching abilities.
For one of her greatest, according to her principal, is her gift for working with her Oak Grove Preschool students’ families – many of which are families whose special needs children are attending school for the first time.
“She takes the time to listen to families’ concerns about their children and often reassures them that ‘it’s going to be OK,’” Principal Debbie Ritter said. “Beth thoroughly explains the learning differences that the student may have, but also looks for the bright light that the student has within them.”
This action stems from Ms. Piccirilli’s core education belief: “all students are capable of learning.” Parents praise her for showing them this truth and their children’s bright light.
“Ms. Beth has worked wonders with our daughter, and we are eternally grateful for her patience, dedication and always welcoming smile,” a parent shared. “Her unique gifts change the life trajectory for children with disabilities.”
In her own words: “I encourage connection with parents, guardians and family members. The people who live in the child’s home know them best. Clear and honest communication is the best way to get to know more about the student.”
Cherokee HS: Rebekah Gay
The Cherokee High School community has a saying: “Once a Warrior, always a Warrior.”
This holds true for Rebekah Gay, who came home to her alma mater 11 years ago to teach English and coach soccer and cross-country and has been making a positive difference ever since.
One parent, who describes herself as “a lifelong member of the Coach Gay Fanclub,” put it this way: “As a teacher and coach, Ms. Gay has made a difference in the lives of our children because she chooses to do more than what is required of her. She is passionate and truly cares about those that encounter her every day. I wish that every student had the chance to have a Ms. Gay in their lives. I know, without a doubt, that they would be all the better for it.”
Her child, she said, overcame a mental health challenge with support from Ms. Gay. She showed great care and patience with him in her classes and engaged with him to make him laugh and have hope.
Her colleagues say Ms. Gay not only is beloved for how she encourages her students, but also for her dedication to the profession. She is pioneering in her work, looking for new research based techniques and innovative ideas to improve student reading and writing.
“Look at the academic growth at CHS,” said Woodstock HS Principal Charley Ingham, a past Cherokee HS assistant principal, “and her influence can be seen.”
In her own words: “I always want kids to feel like they belong somewhere and be comfortable at school. Within my classroom, I value kindness and respect for others, which I consider part of being a great student.”
Clark Creek ES STEM Academy: Jennifer Rice
Jennifer Rice remembers the moment she felt called to become a teacher.
She was a first-grader, her parents were divorcing and she felt uncertainty about her future. School became her safe place thanks to a special teacher.
“My teacher provided comfort, stability and safety. Through her guidance, my confidence grew, and I began to flourish and succeed,” she said. “This was when I realized this was something I wanted to provide to other children. By being a beacon of hope, I realized I could empower others and help students believe in themselves.”
Ms. Rice, who is beginning her 24th year as an educator and her fifth year as a first-grade teacher at Clark Creek ES STEM Academy, shines a bright light for her own students. Parents and colleagues praise her for balancing outstanding instruction and real-world lessons with incredible care and life-long friendships.
“Mrs. Rice is a teacher who makes exceptional connections with all of her students. She was invested in my daughter’s emotional well-being as much as her academic growth,” shared the mom of a former student. “She left first grade with a love for learning, reading above grade level and wanting to read as much as she could. Mrs. Rice brought books to life and showed her students that great things are possible if they believe in themselves.”
She said her daughter still looks to Ms. Rice for guidance. “We will be forever grateful for the time and energy Mrs. Rice invested that school year and years after … we will forever be thankful for Mrs. Rice.”
In her own words: “My most tremendous honor is watching my students thrive, learn and realize their full potential. I hope to be remembered by my students as someone who invested in them as a person, not just a student.”
Clayton ES: Jessica Wimpey
Jessica Wimpey planted the seeds for Clayton Elementary School’s STEM initiative and has nurtured it to success.
A 12-year educator, Ms. Wimpey was tasked by her principal three years ago to grow a fully operational STEM program.
“She made my vision her own,” her former principal said, praising her as not only “resident STEM expert,” but also an all-around exemplary teacher and leader who makes a schoolwide positive impact. “Our students have become genuine problem solvers with creative solutions to real-world problems. This couldn’t have happened without Jessica’s dedication.”
She also identified community partners to help shower the STEM initiative with funding, supplies and expertise. The program now is part of students’ electives rotation. Inside the lab classroom, students learn about concepts like the engineering process through identifying and then solving real-world problems. Outside in the school garden, they learn about techniques like organic farming and pollinators by planting, tending and harvesting.
“At the beginning of my teaching career, the most popular question students used to ask was, ‘Why do we have to learn this?’” she said. “It was at this moment I knew as a teacher I needed to design more meaningful learning experiences for my students to succeed. I no longer hear that question because I deliberately design lessons that bring the outside world into the classroom and create learning that is more relevant to their lives.”
In her own words: “I can teach science, technology, engineering and math every day, but when I provide students a problem to solve that is relevant to their lives or the community around them, a connection is made.”
Creekland MS: Dara Yokley
Creekland Middle School Teacher of the Year Dara Yokley has learned through her own life the great reward that can follow great risk.
Over her 18-year career, she said “yes” to different teaching opportunities that challenged her, from different subject levels to different grade levels to different learning needs. Through these experiences, she found her calling as a Special Education teacher.
“Had I not said ‘yes’” she said, “I would have missed out on the opportunity of getting to know an exceptional population of students and their families. I would have missed out on the chance to learn and grow as an educator.”
The parents of her students are thankful she did, praising her as a blessing to their children.
“Dara exemplifies what a special needs teacher should be,” one mom shared. “She sees the individual child and connects with them. She offers love, understanding and patience, which are the foundation on which she is able to teach and reach each child. I know she will forever be a resource for any help with our son, and that his life is different for knowing her. His life has been blessed by what a wonderful teacher Dara is.”
In her own words: “Say ‘yes’ to risk. Say ‘yes’ to stepping out of your comfort zone. Say ‘yes’ to new things. When you give your ‘yes’ to new opportunities, you broaden your own thought process for the beautiful thing that is education.”
Creekview HS: Wyatt Wilkie
Wyatt Wilkie teaches his Creekview High School students many career and life skills, as well as another valuable lesson: the importance of community service.
As a Career Pathway teacher for agriculture, Mr. Wilkie prepares his students for potential careers in the field, with classes ranging from basic agriculture science to advanced agriculture mechanics.
Engaging his students as “active and effective members of their community” is a main goal, and he accomplishes this through class community service projects. Among these projects, school gardens generate produce for the House of Hope charitable organization, and students complete landscaping work for widows, veterans and others who need a helping hand.
Through the projects, students learn about agriculture, community needs and how they can make a difference. They also learn an important lesson about teamwork.
“During these types of community connections, students are willing to work with others in a way that is unseen in the classroom,” said Mr. Wilkie, who is beginning his 19th year as an educator. “They all seem to realize the task at hand and come together to get it done. Without the community projects, these students would have never learned to work together.”
Colleagues, students and parents praise Mr. Wilkie as an outstanding teacher for his success in instruction, his care for students and his leadership by example. As his principal shared, “Something that cannot be overstated is Mr. Wilkie’s impact on our community. In many ways, he is Creekview. He represents what our community values most: work ethic, achievement and loyalty to the community.”
In his own words: “Most students love to help, and many have no idea of the need in our community.”
Dean Rusk MS: Robyn West
Robyn West helps her Dean Rusk Middle School students navigate a challenging life phase by giving them an important gift.
The empathy, according to former students and their parents, she fosters through her lessons is just as valuable as the English composition skills they learn in her classes.
“Middle school is a time of the awkward phase, changing friendships, sometimes living in a culture of meanness, being different and, not to mention, the changes that the school environment brings in conjunction with new academic expectations,” shared a former student’s mom. “My daughter was not immune. Thankfully, Mrs. West was able to positively guide my daughter to learning … and my daughter’s love of learning was not the only thing that grew in eighth grade, so did her love for giving.”
She credits Mrs. West’s care for each student and thoughtful assignments, such as one to complete a service project that brings others joy. Her daughter played “Secret Santa” to a recently widowed neighbor. It taught her the value of service and inspired her to, for the last seven years, make blankets for those in need every holiday season.
The investment by Ms. West, now in her 26th year as a teacher, into her students also has led to increased test scores. “The encouragement and care displayed by Ms. West for her students is one of the reasons they perform so well for her on a consistent basis,” her principal said. “They know she truly is concerned for their well-being and has a vested interest in their continued success.”
In her own words: “I strongly believe building positive and meaningful relationships fosters a successful learning environment.”
E.T. Booth MS: Beth Nugent
Beth Nugent introduced herself to her new students this week, just like her colleagues across the school district.
Her students heard something that might have surprised them: she’s a former E.T. Booth Middle School student.
“Students who attended Boston Elementary perk up when I tell them I went there as well. They also get excited when I tell them which teachers at Booth taught me when I was a student,” said Ms. Nugent, who just started her 12th year as a teacher. “Because I came back to work in my hometown, my alma mater, I try to work hard every day to give back to my community and to invest in the future of where I grew up. I strive to show my students, through my actions, how much I care for them and their success in and out of the classroom.”
She succeeds in that mission, according to colleagues and parents. “I received many schedule requests from parents to have their child in Beth’s class – both from families with children who had passed through her class previously and from those who knew her only by reputation,” a past principal shared.
That reputation is a teacher expert in math instruction, who uses inquiry based lessons and hands-on activities to foster a deeper understanding of the “why” of math concepts. That reputation also is a teacher expert in building students’ math confidence, such as through her effective use of individual student conferences and goal setting.
In her own words: “I strive to create a positive learning environment where my students feel comfortable asking questions when they do not understand something.”
Free Home ES: Kim Fowler
Kim Fowler exceeds many benchmarks for measuring teacher success, especially the sweetest one.
“One of her peers noted that a true acknowledgement of her impact on students is the number of hugs she receives from former students who simply see her in the hallway,” her principal said of Ms. Fowler, who is in her seventh year as a teacher. “Kim gives behind the scenes to assure her students are always taken care of, whether it is providing cupcakes for a child whose family did not have the resources for a birthday or helping to pay for book fair finds when funds simply were not available.”
A former student shared why he thinks Ms. Fowler is the best: “She is always looking for fun ways to teach you and she is always pushing you to do the best you can. She is a funny teacher, and she is also a great person outside of school. She is always cheering people on to do their very best.”
He knows about the cheering firsthand, as Ms. Fowler still shows up for his football games to cheer for him and other former students.
During her tenure, Ms. Fowler has taught kindergarten, early intervention program and English Learners, and this school year is teaching first grade. She said building a positive relationship with her students and encouraging them to do the same with each other are core to her teaching. She often prompts her students to “circle up” to solve problems together.
In her own words: “When my students, past or present, walk into my classroom, they know it to be a place where they are loved, safe and cared for.”
Freedom MS: Cat Klingbeil
Freedom Middle School’s science program has been transformed under the leadership of teacher Cat Klingbeil.
Through her roles as science department chair and as a member of the school’s Discovery Education STEM Innovator Leadership team, she is encouraging future scientists daily and helped her school earn international Cognia STEM accreditation.
Ms. Klingbeil introduces her peers to teaching techniques from Argument Driven Inquiry (ADI) to engineering design process, and makes the new and sometimes overwhelming both easier and exciting.
“She encourages teachers not only with words and resources, but as a model teacher, inviting teachers to come see her in action so they can replicate the strategies in their own classrooms,” a colleague shared.
Now in her eighth year of teaching, her influence on instruction has led to more successful and engaged students. One former student shared that her dedication doesn’t go unnoticed: “If you ask her a question about science, she will 99% of the time know the answer and will find a way to help you by breaking it down … if you don’t understand the content, she helps you so you can get it right the next time.”
In her own words: “The engineering design process is at the core of my beliefs about teaching and learning. This process is vital for students to grow and succeed in critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. It encourages students to inquire about a problem, construct possible solutions, test designs, analyze results and make improvements. Its reflection and improvement portion is essential for student growth and prepares them for real-world scenarios because it helps children learn that adjusting is OK.”
Hasty ES Fine Arts Academy: Kate Bruner
A mom shared her own story about Kate Bruner’s dedication to students.
Her foster child was a student in Ms. Bruner’s fifth-grade class. Ms. Bruner helped the girl settle into her new school and recognized previously unnoticed Special Education needs.
Ms. Bruner’s support quickly extended beyond exceptional classroom instruction, as she helped her navigate the trauma that led to her placement in foster care.
Ms. Bruner hosted special lunches for her and other students who needed emotional support. She showed up at dance recitals and athletic competitions.
“She supported our daughter in every way, emotionally, socially and educationally. I am certain that our child isn’t the exception, but the rule of how Ms. Bruner sees her students,” the mom shared. “Kate models the exact type of person and citizen we wish for all children to become.”
Her administrators and colleagues agree that Ms. Bruner’s rule is a “sincere belief, encouragement and unwavering support” for all of her students. Now in her sixth year of teaching, Ms. Bruner additionally was named one of four finalists for CCSD’s 2023 Teacher of the Year honor.
In her own words: “I feel the most pride when I’m able to reach the students in my classroom on an individual level, both personally and academically. When I’m able to reach each student and relate to them on a personal level, they are much more willing to learn from me.”
Hickory Flat ES: Dara Gramling
Dara Gramling grew up in the Cherokee County School District and made some of her favorite memories on soccer fields and cheerleading sidelines.
Through those experiences, she learned the value of competition and teamwork and the positive impact they can have on self-confidence and academic success.
Now in her 10th year as a CCSD teacher, Ms. Gramling coaches her second-grade students to learn these same lessons along with state academic standards.
“I am continually encouraging my young students to try something new in order to learn some of these lessons that can only be learned through competition. And the students know that I will be there in the crowd cheering them along,” she said, noting that if they do join an athletic team or performance group, she attends their games and recitals.
Her advocacy for her students to succeed in learning and in life is why many parents and colleagues now are Ms. Gramling’s cheerleaders.
“Dara strives to build relationships and connections with every student who enters her classroom. Her ability to instill responsibility in every student is an accolade for sure,” shared a colleague, whose children also have been in her class. “It is clear that teaching is Dara’s calling. She encourages not only her students, but all of us, to embrace the opportunity to be better than yesterday.”
In her own words: “Since focusing first on relationships, my students have grown academically, socially and emotionally. The impact of creating meaningful relationships with your students is undeniable.”