You need to spend only a few minutes in Sheryl Green's classroom at Jordan Vocational High School to learn why she was named the 2015 Teacher of the Year in the Muscogee County School District.
Friday, the day after Green was announced as the winner during the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation's annual gala, students in her dual-enrollment English class, where each one is on track to earn credit from Columbus Technical College, gave credit to Green for believing in them.
Every student at Jordan is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, but Green sees possibilities where others might see problems.
"She just treats us like we're more than what we come from," said junior Caitlin Cortes. "She sees past the color of our skin and the family situations we come from, like our demographics. She treats us like we're somebody and that we will be somebody."
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Green spends extra time with her students, Caitlin said, and reminds them "even though we don't initially understand something, that doesn't mean we'll never get it."
Zachary Tice, another junior, compared Green to a therapist.
"I can go to her and say anything to her," he said.
Because she shows her students they can trust her.
"She cares for each student enough and helps them out with everything that they need," Zachary said. "Even when I bomb her class, she's still there to help me out."
Jordan principal Alton White noted, "You have teachers who work well with advanced students. You have teachers who work well with struggling students. She has the ability to connect with all of them."
Green's passion to educate and compassion for her students go beyond the classroom. She has treated the girls soccer players she coaches to dinners at restaurants to help them learn skills that aren't in a textbook, White said.
When she arrived Friday at school, Jordan treated Green to a surprise . Students lined up on the sidewalk to greet her as she arrived. She high-fived them along the way, and they presented her flowers and escorted her into the gym, where the entire student body and staff celebrated her award.
"It was heartwarming, for sure," she said. " What a testament this is for our school."
And what a moment it was when she was inspired to dance in front of the crowd.
"I honestly don't know how to dance," she said, "but I hammed it up for the kids - anything to make them laugh."
And anything to make them learn.
After swallowing a few bites of the congratulatory cake brought to her classroom, Green sat down for a Q&A with the L-E. Here are excerpts from that interview, edited for brevity and clarity.
So what's the past 12 hours been like after you were announced as the winner?
"It's been a whirlwind. I think it sunk in when I walked into the gym. I think it sunk in then."
What made it sink in?
"It was just realizing, or just helping the kids realize, that we did something, that Jordan did something very powerful. And there's a potential for some very powerful things to happen from this, and that's my intention."
How would you describe that vision?
"Teacher of the Year, that's a great title, but, to me, I'm a team captain now. I've got a team that I need to be the voice for. I need to be vocal. I need to be present. My face needs to be out there. I want to be a cheerleader for these teachers, my comrades, and tell really cool stories, because I do like to be a storyteller, and listen to what they have to say and all the cool things that are happening."
How would you tell those stories?
"Well, I'm a writer, and I would like to have some kind of platform to write. I kind of had three goals that I mentioned in my interview as well. One was to visit every single school, and that is a goal of mine and I will reach that goal, no doubt. Yes, there's some really cool stuff happening in Room 212 at Jordan, but there's so much other cool stuff that needs to be spoken. I'd like to have a blog on the (school district's) website. Anybody, if they want some inspiration, they can click on that and listen to or read about a really cool story. Then I kind of want to get with you guys (and write a column for the Ledger-Enquirer)."
So what is the best thing going on in the Muscogee County School District that makes you most hopeful about education?
"I think the open dialogue that all the powers that be have. You know, we read about the debates, but the thing about a debate is that things are brought to light, and I think that's a good thing. I think there's a willingness to look at things and at least contemplate change, and I think that's a positive thing. The powers that be need to know what's going on in a really tiny first-grade class, and that would give them hope that some really awesome things are happening. One of the undercurrents that I'm seeing is some real excitement about change. And they're listening to teachers, with the whole change in schedules. I mean, we've answered so many surveys just in this school year. That's good when people are making decisions are bending an ear to the people that are affected by those decisions."
What concerns you most about the school district and how would you solve it?
"I was taught how to teach in the 20th Century, when times were different. So when I'm faced with a classroom of 30 21st Century kids and their reliance on music and their reliance on their phones and their quick attention span and their fast-food mentality, and me, I can barely work a phone, and I'm trying to engage these kids that, to me, seem apathetic, and that's how I used to think it was. But it's not apathy at all. It's a different mindset. And so I think there's a lot of teachers like me, my age, who were taught how to be teachers in a totally different century. So we have to have a paradigm shift, and that's something I'm still struggling with."
So what's been working in your classroom to help make that paradigm shift?
"Me changing my mentality. I call it my Jonathan Experience. (Around 2007, when she taught in Social Circle, Ga.), I had a little guy, his name was Jonathan, and he was a fire explorer, and he was all about fighting fires. He was in my British lit class, and he was already high up in the fire department as a senior in high school. Well, he could care less about 'The Canterbury Tales,' so much so that he didn't read 'The Canterbury Tales.' He didn't do his work, but he had his mind on something else. Well, he was presented with this awesome opportunity to have an apprenticeship up North to get this special training and then come back as an officer and teach the fire department. The only thing he had to do was graduate. So here I am, 20th Century, 'You don't do the work, you don't get the grade,' and I'm sitting there, a month before graduation, with him, the guidance counselor and his father. And I'm like, 'Well, he needs to do the work,' and Jonathan, he was a very polite and respectful young man and didn't say anything. The guidance counselor said, 'Dad, why don't you tell Ms. Green what's going on,' and they told me all about that. And right then is when I had my paradigm shift, that it's not about me. It's not about my rigidness to the point where I am insensitive or inflexible. It's realizing that, just maybe, these kids have other plans. And how important is British lit to a guy who has his life pretty much outlined? Now, is it important, of course, that he understands how to write and communicate? Exactly. But I could have been a little more flexible. And we worked it out. Jonathan and I, we met after school and we did what we needed to do to get him to where he needed to be in order to get credit and so that I did not compromise my integrity. He still earned his passing grade, but yet I wasn't so infallible in my mentality."
It's a balance, right?
"That is the word, I think, the most powerful word, is to have balance, to balance sincerity with sternness, to balance love with maintaining your high expectations, to balance high expectations with the ability to meet a kid where they are, because you can't have the same expectations for every single kid. And that's, I think, a paradigm shift."
How do you know where that right balance is? Some people might have said you let that kid slide. You didn't stick to your standards. Did he read "The Canterbury Tales"?
"I altered the assignment just a tad. Yes, he read a portion of 'The Canterbury Tales.' He got 70 percent of what he needed to get."
You made him\ realize he had a reachable goal?
"Exactly, and if anybody figures out how to do that, how to reach perfect balance, then share with me, because it's every day. Every day you have to figure out, 'How can I get this little guy to get where he needs to be, maybe not where I want him to be.' Because the fact of the matter is, not every kid is going to get where I want to be. Every day I'm frustrated."
So what did Jonathan do to pass and what didn't he do?
"Well, first of all, it wasn't on time. That's why you got the A and he did not. Let's say your assignment was a five-page paper. Well, Jonathan probably turned in a three-page paper. I have very rigid rubrics. So we looked at the rubric, Jonathan and I, and I said, 'Where do you need to be.' He said, 'I need a 70.' I said, 'Well, there's what you do to get a 70.'"
Didn't' he know that going in?
Of course he did.
It took spending the time with him to have the light bulb go on? You didn't change the standard. You just made it more clear?
"Exactly. The only thing I changed for Jonathan is that I didn't accept late papers at that point. Now, I do - with deductions. And I think it took a come-to-Jesus meeting of all of us, where we got on the same page. I'm holding steadfast, and I'm thinking that he's being the apathetic, lazy teenage boy. And the reality was that he's already up North. I face this battle on a daily basis, and I have to make a decision for each individual kid, not to lower my standards or my expectations but to find some way to get the kid to invest in those expectations. Ask me how I do it, I don't know. That's not a very good answer."
Well, spending a few minutes talking to your students, I have a clue about how you're doing it. You're investing in them as human beings, and you're making them know that you care about who they are, and now let's see what kind of student you can be, rather than the other way around.
"I think maybe I have something with these kids. I just really like them. I think telling a kid, 'You can do this,' and then breaking it down. That's what it boils down to. Let's have a daunting task and let's accomplish little things. Then we move to the next chunk. With my sophomores, we just spent four weeks on an essay, and we started from the very smallest little chunk. It was a research project, and at the end, they're able to write it because we did it in chunks. So when they accomplish a chunk, and I hover over them, 'You can do this. It's easy. Let's just do this one chunk.' And they do it. They have a sense of ownership then, and they have a taste of success, and they like it. Academics is foreign to a lot of kids. So give them a little taste, and then they want more."
Why did you choose to be a teacher?
"I started out as a (women's soccer) coach (at North Greenville College), and I quickly learned that coaching and teaching are very similar."
You were an English major. What was your career goal?
"I was going to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I was leaning toward prosecuting. I stopped along the way when this opportunity to be a college coach came in. I didn't think college coaching would be a lifelong career, so I took a couple of graduate classes here and there, and I took an education class, and I said, 'This might be where my niche is.'"
Both your parents were teachers.
"It was always in the back of my mind, but I didn't know what area I wanted. I was having my little identity crisis moment and feeling things out and having to pay the bills, and finally I was like, 'Let's pursue some stuff.'"
What is it about teaching that jazzes you?
"Well, I really do believe it is the light-bulb moments. And that seems so cliché, making a difference in kids' lives, but, in reality, that's what keeps me coming in the morning. Even though I get frustrated at kids sometimes - we all do - I think in the long run, I know I am helping these kids. And that, to me, is going to make the world a better place - because they're going to be taking care of me in a few years. (Laughs.)"
How do we attract and retain more teachers who can have those light-bulb moments?
"I want them to evaluate me. I want them to hold me accountable, and I want the lady next door to me to be held accountable too, because it's a very important job. And I think that's something that needs to be reiterated, especially in education classes in college. It needs to be told to these future teachers, 'What responsibility we have!' We're creating and molding the minds of our future country, and if people, educators, could just grasp the magnitude of that, then that little guy or little girl in their class who's bucking the system, they go from your class and they're going to buck the next teacher and they're going to graduate and buck society. So that sounds like some esteemed, utopian vision, but the reality is if we all could just understand the magnitude of our role and our responsibility, I think people would at least understand the merit of what they do, the validity of what they do. Humans want to feel valid and important. ... When I get frustrated and I want to find another job because I can't handle the pressure, if I could just remember, 'Oh, my goodness. I can handle this amount of pressure, this paper work, because that kid or this group of kids or this class of kids or this school of kids or this county of kids is our future, simply put.'"
And well put. But having said all that, there's this nasty underbelly of education law prescribing an accountability system. So what's your ideal accountability system?
"I think it needs to be a trend of data. If I am going to be evaluated and my job depends on it and my pay depends on it, then it doesn't need to be a 20-minute walkthrough, it needs to be a trend, a data trend. Some people would probably buck that and say, 'If you're a bad teacher, get you out.' Obviously, yes, but there are a lot of teachers who maybe need to be evaluated more on a long-term thing. I'm not talking like 10 years, by any means. But a 20-minute walkthrough, what does that show? So I think it needs to be a trend of data: You are quite often coming in late; you are quite often not turning in your lesson plans; you are quite often not producing the scores that you need - instead of, 'You've got 180 to prove yourself.' Because that's what we do in society. We watch the stock market trend. We watch this business have a good fiscal year and this business not have a good fiscal year, then we make a determination. There are so many things coming down the chute. Last year, it was the EOCT. This year, it's the Milestones. Well, that happened instantaneously, and we're going to hold these teachers accountable for something that changed in less than a year. So I think trend is the biggest word to focus on."
Experience: English teacher in Columbus at Jordan Vocational High School (2013-present) and Hardaway High School (January 2013 to May 2013), Social Circle, Ga., (2007-2012), Charlotte, N.C., (2006-07) and Vienna, Austria (2004-06); coached women's soccer at North Greenville College and Erskine College.
Education: specialist's degree in teacher leadership, Piedmont College, 2012; master's degree in English education, Lander University, 1999; bachelor's degree in English, High Point University, 1995 (Academic All-American and women's soccer team Most Valuable Player); Heritage High School, Conyers, Ga., graduate, 1991.
Activities: initiated leadership development program at Jordan; mentors female students in character-building group after school; organized a work project on Jordan's soccer field to connect the Hispanic community with the school's girls and boys soccer programs; hosted and mentored student-teacher from Columbus State University; member of CSU English Education Program Advisory Council
Family: mother, Lonnie Green, retired kindergarten teacher in Conyers, Ga.; deceased father, Truman Green, taught special education; sister, Karen Malcom, kindergarten paraprofessional in Acworth, Ga.
Recommended books: "The Count of Monte Cristo," "Wit" (a one-act play also known as "W;t") and "The Scarlet Letter"