Her students describe her as funky and funny, organized and creative, interesting and nice and special.
The Georgia Center for Civic Engagement has another way to describe Midland Middle School gifted education facilitator Sue Funk: the 2013 Georgia Civic Educator of the Year for middle schools.
Funk, a 34-year teacher, joined the Midland staff when the school opened in 1999. Since then, she has had the most middle school student projects qualify for the National History Day competition in Georgia eight times.
During a visit to Funk's classroom Wednesday, seventh-grader Amanda Pate, 12, summed up the key to such success.
"Mrs. Funk always pushes us to our limit," she said.
Amanda pointed to a bunch of handwritten posters on the wall. They are messages the students wrote as reminders to persevere.
"When we don't want to do anything," Amanda said, "we can look at those and be more motivated."
Amanda's poster says, "Push harder today for a better tomorrow."
The posters are grouped together under this headline: "The secret of getting ahead is getting started." Below the posters is another aphorism: "Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference."
Midland principal Teresa Lawson emphasized Funk has a super attitude for a teacher, taking the time to pursue excellence.
"The depth she takes them through, it's not, 'Open the book and answer the questions,'" Lawson said. "The students live it, so when they walk away, they know what they're talking about because they had an experience."
For example, to celebrate Constitution Day, her students dressed in costumes from different countries to depict the U.S. as the "melting pot of the world." They stood outside the cafeteria and serenaded their fellow students by reciting and signing the preamble to the Constitution.
"That's how we learn best," Lawson said, "by seeing it, touching it, feeling it, doing it."
Funk hears her reputation as a tough teacher and smiles.
"I do push them, and I harass them, and I fuss at them," she said. "I do all those things, but it's because I want to see the best out of them. Over the years, I'd have students who I didn't think would ever think of me again, but they've sent emails or letters that said, 'You know all that hard work you made me do? It was worth it.'"
Seventh-grader Alexus Robinson, 13, noted Funk strikes a balance between being strict and lenient.
"I'm really obsessed with my mp3 player, so she says while you're writing your paper that's late, you can listen to your music," Alexus said. "But if you don't do it, if it isn't finished by the end of the day, then I'm going to have to not let you listen to that anymore."
Asked how she feels about that deal, Alexus said, "I think it's completely fair."
Funk indeed values her students' opinions. Next to the door in her classroom, she has a chart on a corkboard that allows students to give her immediate feedback about that day's lesson. Before they leave, the students put a pushpin on the square that indicates their assessment based on two factors: engagement and rigor.
"Engagement is how well we responded, and rigor is how hard it is," said seventh-grader James Jadus, 12. "She can adapt the lesson so it won't be too easy or too hard and we can respond to it well."
Then he explained the impact: "That means a lot to me because she's not just doing what she wants to do; she's listening to input from the students."
Experience: Gifted education facilitator, Midland Middle School, 1999-present; eighth-grade math teacher, Blackmon Road Middle School, 1995-99; grades 6-8 science teacher, Academic Success Center, 1994-95; grades 6-8 math, science and social studies teacher, St. Anne School, 1990-94 and 1983-87; fifth-grade English and social studies teacher, Carver Elementary School, 1981-83; eight-grade science and math teacher, Southern Junior High School, 1981; sixth-grade math, science and social studies teacher, Faith Junior High School, 1975-79.
Education: National Board Certified, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, 2003; specialist's degree in middle school math and science, Columbus State University, 1996; master's degree in elementary education, CSU, 1975; bachelor's degree in junior high school math and science, North Georgia College, 1974; high school diploma, Columbus High School, 1971; also attended Hardaway, Richards and Wynnton schools.
Advice for parents to help their children learn: "Have dinner with them and have a discussion. The parents shouldn't be doing the projects, but they should be talking to the children so the children have a chance to voice what they think. Around the dinner table is the best place to do it, but we don't do that so much anymore."