As teachers returned to work Tuesday in the Muscogee County School District and started preparing their classrooms for Monday’s start of the 2017-18 academic year, Blanchard Elementary second-grade teacher Monica Harris still was boosted by the surprise award she received this summer.
Out of thousands of candidates, Harris is among the five regional winners in the Barnes & Noble “My Favorite Teacher” national contest. She was nominated by one of her former students, Samantha Khoury, who was an eighth-grader this past school year at Veterans Memorial Middle School when she submitted her entry and now is a rising freshman at Columbus High School.
“I was stunned, grateful, honored,” Harris, in her 25th year as a teacher, told the Ledger-Enquirer during a visit to her classroom. “… It affirms that the relationships and the respect and the emotion behind what we do and how we do it matters. It’s very humbling to realize that you have that type of impact on a child who remembers it years later.”
Harris won three levels in this contest: She is the store winner, the district winner and the regional winner. All of which earned her a $500 Barnes & Noble gift card – and a priceless surge of renewed appreciation. She emphasized Blanchard’s leadership, faculty and parents have created and nurtured an excellent learning culture, where it’s a joy to teach.
“Blanchard is a very special place,” said Harris, who has taught there for 12 years and previously taught in Gwinnett County and Clarke County. “I’ve been very privileged with the quality of the children that we teach. … It’s an honor that parents share their children with me for 180 days.”
Harris grew up in Moultrie, where she graduated from Pineland High School. She earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Georgia, a master’s degree from Walden University and a specialist’s degree from Columbus State University.
From January to March, middle school and high school students across the country submitted nominations by writing an essay, a poem or a thank-you letter that describes how their favorite teacher influenced their life. According to Barnes & Noble’s news release, the entries were judged based on “the compelling nature of the teacher’s qualities, the sincerity of the student’s appreciation and the quality of expression and writing.”
Samantha was in Harris’ classroom when Harris taught third grade, but Harris started teaching Samantha a life lesson in the power of relationships by connecting with her when Samantha was in kindergarten. Here are excerpts from Samantha’s thank-you letter to her favorite teacher:
“When I was in kindergarten, you'd always stop me in the hallways to compliment my sneakers. It may have seemed insignificant then, but eight years later, I can still recall the pure bliss and unmatchable joy that was brought on by these small encounters. By the time I stepped into your classroom on the first day of third grade, I'd grown quite a bit taller. The memories of our little exchanges still stuck with me. ... I couldn't wait to be in the class with the teacher I'd adored for years. I wasn't disappointed.
“... On the third Wednesday of every month, I was always extra emotional. These days, my parents and baby brother were in Atlanta for his cancer treatments. My mom would warn you the day before, so you'd give me a ‘special job,’ like running some papers down to another classroom.
“... But I think the greatest impact you've had on my life was inspiring my love for reading. I vividly remember those 60 minutes after lunch that we'd crowd around as you read us ‘The Tale of Despereaux,’ our tiny faces staring up in awe.”
“… On the last day of school, all of the girls painted our nails in your room while the boys watched a movie across the hall. My mom came to pick me up from school, and I gave you a big hug before I had to go. In that moment, I couldn’t help but cry. All I could think about was tiny me in the halls, grinning when you said you liked my shoes.”
Harris is heartened to know that her words matter – and that her teaching philosophy produces positive results in her students.
“If you believe in them, respect them and honor them,” she said, “they’ll give you that same level of respect and honor themselves.”
Harris remembers Samantha “was very timid, very quiet, but very sweet and a very driven young lady. She loved to read, and reading happens to be my thing.”
Not just reading but also teaching reading and talking about reading and motivating her students to one day say that reading happens to be their thing too. No wonder Harris plans to use the $500 Barnes & Noble gift card to buy reading material for her school and classroom.
But before she teaches reading, Harris insists on teaching proper behavior. She admitted, “I’m a taskmaster.I teach structure. I teach routine and manners.”
The purpose: “If they understand common respect and manners to one another,” she said, “then I’ve done a great deal of my job. The rest will come.”
And when they go, when her students leave her classroom, they don’t depart her heart. “They know that once they’re mine,” she said, “they’re always mine.”