Top Teacher: "Education can change you like that"
Shane Larkin of the Early College Academy of Columbus is the Muscogee County School District’s 2017 Teacher of the Year.
The Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation announced the winner during its annual gala Thursday night in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. A record, sellout crowd of more than 990 supporters honored the 56 nominees representing each MCSD school.
The field was narrowed to three finalists March 3, when MEEF board members made surprise visits to the classrooms of these teachers: Larkin, a social studies teacher for grades 9-12 at Early College; Tesharra Alexander, a sixth-grade English language arts teacher at Blackmon Road Middle School; and Tabitha Ginther, an English language arts teacher for grades 10-11 at Northside High School.
After he posed for photos with MEEF chairwoman Janet Davis and MCSD superintendent David Lewis, Larkin stepped to the podium and exclaimed, “Whooo! Absolutely amazing.”
Larkin was more nervous waiting for this announcement, he said, than waiting to attack his squad’s first objective during the Iraq War in 2003.
“What a great night to be a teacher,” he told the crowd.
Larkin thanked MEEF “for being a community-based organization that realizes the importance of public education, which is the greatest institution ever devised.”
He thanked the superintendent, the school board and the “amazing members of our community for showing your support and commitment to public education.”
He thanked his fellow teachers, nominees and finalists. “Ms. Alexander and Ms. Ginther,” he said, “this is truly a transformative process that I’ve been privileged enough to share with both of you.” Then he asked them to stand for the audience to applaud them again.
He thanked his Early College colleagues and joked, “Hopefully after tonight, because of social media and traditional media, we will not have to continue explaining to people what we are and where we’re located.”
Early College, at 2701 11th Ave., in the facility that was Waverly Terrace School and the Teenage Parenting Center, is a total magnet high school, whose 159 students in grades 9-12 apply to be enrolled and come from throughout Columbus. Students are placed on a fast track to complete the Georgia high school graduation requirements in time to join the state’s Move On When Ready program and take college classes in 11th grade and 12th grade at Columbus State University or Columbus Technical College.
Larkin thanked Early College principal Susan Willard “for granting me as much autonomy in the classroom as possible. She allows me to teach.”
He thanked retired Arnold principal Lura Reed for giving him his first teaching job and teaching him to “look at the big picture” and how to put “the business and the academic pieces together for success.”
He thanked “every teacher who has played a role in my life,” especially the teacher who saw his potential and didn’t let him fail his senior year, and the third-grade teacher and neighbor who was “my second mother,” he added through a choked-up voice. “You were always there for me and my family.”
He thanked “all my infantry brothers. … Combat can reveal the true character of people. When the bullets were flying in Iraq, I was surrounded by a bunch of true professionals.”
He thanked Columbus State University “for being the best school in the world for teachers.
And he thanked his family. “My background, there’s not much education involved in it,” he said. “I married very well.”
Larkin estimated four relatives on his wife’s side of the family have combined for more than 100 years of teaching at the college and secondary level and earned 11 degrees, including multiple doctorates. “You guys are my inspiration,” he said.
To his wife and two daughters, he said, “You are my everything.”
Larkin referred to Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “He stated that his presence on that stage was very unlikely; mine is as well,” Larkin said. “It’s very unlikely that I’m here and that I’m a teacher.”
As the youngest of 20-plus siblings, he is the only one to earn a college degree and one of five to graduate high school, where he finished with a 2.0 grade-point average.
“School was always my sanctuary,” he said.
And in the community, Larkin said, “Schools are our beacons of prosperity.”
He concluded, “Thank you again for this amazing honor. I will do everything in my ability to live up to it.”
This is Larkin’s ninth year teaching. He has taught at Early College since 2014, after a 2008-14 stint at Arnold Middle School. He served in the U.S. Army for 10 years and retired as a staff sergeant. He has two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree and a specialist’s degree at Columbus State University.
In his application, Larkin explained that his experiences in high school and the Army were his primary motivation to become a teacher.
“I grew up poor in a rural northwest Pennsylvania town called Shinglehouse,” he wrote. “I was the youngest of twenty siblings and half siblings. Many of my family members were involved in crime and struggled with substance abuse.”
After his “abusive alcoholic” father died when Larkin was 16, his mother married “a man who was physically abusive to her and the abuse led to her early death at 49 years of age,” he wrote, “This led to physical altercations between me and him many times, which resulted in me living on my own and raising myself my last three years of high school. I moved around and lived with different friends during this time. The one positive, constant and stable setting in my life was school.”
While deployed during a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, he wrote, “It seemed like everything revolved around the schools. I noticed that even in a dangerous war zone, kids still were going to school, often walking long distances to get there.”
Then, while deployed during a combat mission in Kosovo, he was tasked with teaching English to Serbian students.
“I loved almost everything about being an infantry squad leader,” he wrote, “but I felt completely comfortable and inspired while teaching those students for several hours a week. I realized that even in a combat zone, the school made me feel comfortable and safe like when I was in high school. More importantly, it was truly rewarding for me to be part of making a safe zone for those kids who were not safe to even go into neighboring towns. It was at that point I realized the true meaning and power of education.”
According to MEEF’s news release, the selection committee members were impressed with Larkin’s appreciation of the community’s impact on its school system. “Show me a thriving community,” he told them, “and I’ll show you a thriving education system.”
Larkin also advocates for a variety of educational options.
“To improve education,” he told the committee, “we’ve got to invest in multiple paths, including more opportunities for vocational education. The purpose of education is to empower students with knowledge and to create as many opportunities as possible for their future success. That’s our role as a community, and it’s my mandate as a teacher.”
The faculty at each of MCSD’s 56 schools and centers nominated a teacher to represent them and compete for the award. After the nominees were announced in January, MEEF’s selection committee chose 10 semifinalists in February, based on applications.
The committee members interviewed the semifinalists to determine the three finalists. Then they observed the finalists teaching in their classrooms to select the winner.
The other semifinalists were Cindy Applegate of Mathews Elementary School, Vanessa Ellis of Fort Middle School, Cholana Foley of Forrest Road Elementary School, Ron Forgie of Columbus High School, Lynn Hall-Green of Richards Middle School, Clyde Johnson of Spencer High School and Andrea Reese of Britt David Magnet Academy.
Coalition for Sound Growth coordinator Carole Rutland, a retired teacher and retired executive director of the Columbus State University Coca-Cola Space Science Center, chaired the selection committee. The other committee members were 2015 MCSD Teacher of the Year Sheryl Green of Jordan Vocational High School, Sendreka Lakes of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, Allen McMullen of McMullen Funeral Home, Marquette McKnight of Media, Marketing and More, Daniel Parker of Coldwell Banker, Theresa Robertson of Outdoor Events, Gwen Ruff of Columbus Water Works, Mike Venable of Columbus and the Valley/Valley Parent magazines and David White of Troy University-Phenix City.
MEEF gives each nominee $100, each semifinalist $500, each finalist $1,000 and the winner $5,000. All honorees this year also receive tickets to a show at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, a $50 gift certificate from Buckhead Steak & Wine and an autographed copy of Green’s book “Beyond the Classroom: Speaking Truth and Life into Kids,” a collection of her Ledger-Enquirer columns.
In its 21-year history, MEEF has awarded educators more than $2.1 million through the Teacher of the Year, Harvard Fellows and other programs or grants, says the foundation’s news release.