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CCSD Surprises District's Teacher of the Year Four Finalists

Posted On: Wednesday, February 15, 2023

2023 CCSD Teacher of the Year Finalists collage 2 15 23

CCSD 2023 Teacher of the Year Finalists, clockwise from top left, Kate Bruner, Hasty Elementary School Fine Arts Academy fifth-grade teacher; Charm Cochran, Oak Grove Elementary School STEAM Academy Special Education teacher; Wyatt Wilkie, Creekview High School Career Pathway teacher; Lara McDonald, Etowah High School science teacher.

The Cherokee County School District today surprised four exemplary teachers with the news they are finalists for the 2023 CCSD Teacher of the Year award!

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower visited their classrooms to announce that the judging committee selected them as the top four teachers of all CCSD schools’ and centers’ Teachers of the Year. 

The finalists are: Kate Bruner, Hasty Elementary School Fine Arts Academy fifth-grade teacher; Charm Cochran, Oak Grove Elementary School STEAM Academy Special Education teacher; Lara McDonald, Etowah High School science teacher; Wyatt Wilkie, Creekview High School Career Pathway teacher.  [See more photos from the presentations online here.]

“Congratulations to our finalists, and thank you to all of our teachers for their outstanding service to our students and our community,” Dr. Hightower said.  “I’ve read their applications, and saw why the judges were so impressed.  These are teachers who provide the best classroom instruction, then go the extra mile in showing their students and colleagues how much they care about their success and their wellbeing.  One former student’s letter of support summed this up: his former teacher ‘embodies the true core of what it means to not only be a good teacher, but a good person.’”

The four finalists – two selected from all elementary school-level winners and two from all middle, high and centers honorees – were selected by a committee of retired educators, community leaders and the current CCSD Teacher of the Year.  Their selection was based on essay answers to questions about their careers and their views on teaching and education, and letters of support from Principals, colleagues, students and parents.

The CCSD Teacher of the Year, who is one of these four finalists, will be announced during CCSD’s Legacy Makers celebration for all school honorees this spring.  The CCSD winner will represent the school district in the Georgia Teacher of the Year competition.  

The Legacy Makers banquet, and the prizes to be awarded to all of the honorees, are made possible by presenting sponsors: Cherokee County Educational Foundation, Credit Union of Georgia, Northside Hospital Cherokee and Shottenkirk Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram of Canton.  Additional financial and in-kind sponsorship opportunities are available; interested businesses and organizations are encouraged to please contact Penny Dempsey at penny.dempsey@cherokeek12.net or 770.479.1871.

CCSD 2023 Teacher of the Year Finalist Kate Bruner, Hasty Elementary School Fine Arts Academy fifth-grade teacher

CCSD 2023 Teacher of the Year Finalist Kate Bruner, Hasty Elementary School Fine Arts Academy fifth-grade teacher, is congratulated by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower, left; her husband, Alex Bruner; and Principal Dr. Maria Rosario-Regan.

Kate Bruner, Hasty ES Fine Arts Academy fifth-grade teacher

Kate Bruner is on maternity leave, but came in to school today when her principal asked if she had time for a quick meeting.

When she arrived, she was greeted by Alicia Keys’ song “Girl on Fire,” a roomful of her delighted students, colleagues bearing flowers, her husband Alex’s big smile and the Superintendent of Schools with roses and a banner declaring her a CCSD Teacher of the Year finalist.

The very surprised Ms. Bruner is praised by her students and colleagues for bringing that same kind of unexpected joy to their lives every day.

“I love her kindness,” student Victoria Bonilla said, then shared a favorite lesson that showed them erosion in real time using models they built and took outside.  “I love how she teaches us.”

Ms. Bruner, who teaches math, science and social studies, is in her sixth year of teaching and previously earned her school’s Game Changer Award for excellence.  She frequently sponsors student clubs and serves on faculty committees, with an emphasis on how to help students and colleagues feel included and valued.

She heard her calling to be a teacher in first grade and said her many outstanding teachers as a CCSD student guided her path.

“It is because of these teachers and many others that I have been able to become the teacher that I am today,” she said.  “I feel the most pride when I am 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’re much more willing to learn from me on an academic level.”

CCSD 2023 Teacher of the Year Finalist Charm Cochran, Oak Grove Elementary School STEAM Academy Special Education teacher

CCSD 2023 Teacher of the Year Finalist Charm Cochran, Oak Grove Elementary School STEAM Academy Special Education teacher, is congratulated by Principal Penny Valle, left, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower and Assistant Principal Lee Patti.

Charm Cochran, Oak Grove ES STEAM Academy Special Education teacher

Second-grader Sofia Rodriguez was not entirely surprised by today’s news that Charm Cochran is a CCSD Teacher of the Year finalist.

As she shared, they all already know Ms. Cochran is “the best teacher ever.”

“She’s super nice,” Sofia said, “and she’s super patient.”

Ms. Cochran, who was surprised by the visit from the Superintendent of Schools, her Principal and other leaders, is only in her fifth year as a teacher, but has quickly demonstrated to her colleagues that she is dedicated to their profession.  She has been tapped to lead her professional learning community workalike group and is a member of CCSD’s Teacher Ambassador recruiting team that attends job fairs to help lead more outstanding teachers to join the school district.

Principal Penny Valle describes Ms. Cochran as a “student charmer” who runs a model classroom, an exemplary teacher leader and an excellent communicator.  “I have never seen such a beautifully run classroom,” she said.  “She builds wonderful, trusting relationships with her students who hang on every word she speaks.”

Ms. Cochran long knew she wanted to be a teacher, but it was Rita Pierson’s inspiring “Every Kid Needs a Champion” Ted Talk that “ignited her fire” to not only teach, but also advocate for her students.  

“Advocacy for our students is not always an easy journey, but it is a journey we are called to as an educator,” she said.  “While our career as educators may be oh so difficult on so many days, what other career are you given a chance to be a champion for a child every single day?”

CCSD 2023 Teacher of the Year Finalist Lara McDonald, Etowah High School science teacher

CCSD 2023 Teacher of the Year Finalist Lara McDonald, Etowah High School science teacher, is congratulated by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower, left, and Principal Robert Horn.

Lara McDonald, Etowah HS science teacher

Engaging high school students in science classes, including challenging Advanced Placement courses, isn’t the easiest task.

Lara McDonald succeeds in this mission, and for the past 13 years has made her hard work to design engaging lessons look like fun.

She uses her performing arts background to rewrite “Hamilton” lyrics to teach about water resources, to dress up as Captain America for environmental science lessons and to transform her classroom into a crime scene (she wears a hazmat suit!) to teach about blood types. 

But as one colleague, a former CCSD Teacher of the Year, shared: “her creativity is not limited to play and dress up.”  She’s also a leading force, he said, in using small group activities for learning and assessment, giving students opportunities to use academic language and learn from peers.

A fifth-generation teacher and two-time school Teacher of the Year title winner, Ms. McDonald sees herself on a quest to increase collaboration in classroom learning.  “Building collaboration into my lessons encourages students to engage with one another, learn to trust peers and to grow in self-confidence.”

Ms. McDonald’s also legendary for her after-school clubs, from Dungeons & Dragons to anime to knitting to the competitive Envirothon team.  As a former student said, “she gives us a gift that not every student gets, a home away from home.” 

Junior Charlotte Luina is in Ms. McDonald’s AP Environmental Science class, where she and her classmates regularly find themselves entertained with songs and activities.

But what’s most important, she said, isn’t in the lyrics: “She really cares about us, her students.” 

CCSD 2023 Teacher of the Year Finalist Wyatt Wilkie, Creekview High School Career Pathway teacher

CCSD 2023 Teacher of the Year Finalist Wyatt Wilkie, Creekview High School Career Pathway teacher, is congratulated by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower, left; his son, freshman Weston Wilkie; and Principal Michael Santoro.

Wyatt Wilkie, Creekview HS Career Pathway teacher

A nationally recognized high school and college wrestler, Wyatt Wilkie had many opportunities for his future path.

As Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower said, as he surprised Mr. Wilkie today with the news he’s a CCSD Teacher of the Year finalist, our community is fortunate he chose the path home.

Senior Maddie Addy is a student in Mr. Wilkie’s Career Pathway agriculture science program, which has grown with his leadership to include agriculture mechanics.

“He’s always pushing us to do new things – like welding.  I would never have done that without his motivation and now it’s my favorite thing to do,” said Maddie, who also serves as the FFA Future Farmers of America chapter president.  “He wants us to be happy and wants what we learn to be beneficial to our careers.”

Principal Michael Santoro said Mr. Wilkie’s students are incredibly lucky to benefit from his wealth of experience from 18 years of teaching and his great care for them and the community.

“Wyatt Wilkie is Creekview,” he said.  “He represents what our community values most: work ethic, achievement and loyalty to the community.  His constant display of professionalism is a measuring stick for all teachers.” 

Mr. Wilkie, who credits his leadership philosophy to lessons from his family, coaches and teachers and friends, said he has learned the importance of valuing others and letting them know they are valued.  

“Understanding that all individuals have the ability to do great things allows me to see the value in everyone,” he said.  “Show all students that they are valuable.  You will be surprised how big a difference this makes in the classroom.” 

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