In front of a sellout crowd of more than 1,150 people Thursday night at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center, the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation announced during its annual gala the winner of the Muscogee County School District 2018 Teacher of the Year award.
MEEF also announced the winner of another award — this one not given every year but only when the foundation considers a supporter of local education deserves the honor.
Teacher of the Year
The foundation’s selection committee chose Melanie Gouine of North Columbus Elementary School as the Teacher of the Year out of 57 nominees, one from each MCSD school.
The staff at each school nominated a teacher to compete for the award. MEEF announced the nominees Jan. 31. The foundation’s selection committee members evaluated their applications and announced Feb. 22 the 10 semifinalists to interview. Then, on March 9, they announced the three finalists to observe teaching.
The other two finalists this year are Dawnell Jacobs, a ninth-grade literature and composition teacher at Early College Academy, and Kristan Macphail, a sixth- and ninth-grade English language arts and literature teacher at Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts.
Gouine teaches fourth-grade reading and social studies at North Columbus.
“Wow,” Gouine said as she began her acceptance speech. “Thank you so much to MEEF and to MCSD for this incredible honor. I feel so humbled to represent each and every teacher, not only in this room but in our district and the incredible feats of bravery that you do every single day.”
Then she shared an anecdote about her family to teacher a lesson to her fellow educators and supporters, a lesson that poses and answers this question: “When is it OK to break traditions?”
During a family outing, Gouine and her husband took their two children to a park to feed the ducks. Their 12-year-old son was “obediently watching for cues of when to stop and when to go,” she said. Their 1-year-old daughter, however, “was a different story entirely.”
After about 10 minutes of Chloe’s disobedience, Gouine was frustrated and thought, “This is a Facebook-worthy moment, and you are ruining it. ... But then I heard that quiet whisper, the one that says, ‘Why not?’”
So she released Chloe from her grasp, and the 1-year-old ran to a patch of purple flowers and promptly started to pick them.
“Man, I will never forget that moment, that heavy feeling as if someone has just dumped a load of bricks on your shoulders,” Gouine said. “If I had it my way, Chloe would have left the park that day without every picking her first flower, without touching her first pine cone or taking her first splash in the lake.
“Even further than that, if I had it my way, I would have chiseled away at that unbridled sense of exploration. I felt like I had tried to cheat her. They say becoming a parent makes you a better teacher, and I would have to agree. You see, I did not leave that experience at the park that day. It stayed with me.”
So she took it to her classroom -- and then to the gala’s podium, where she answered the question she had posed.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that traditions should be broken when they break the spirits of our children,” she said. “... What events in your life hindered you from fulfilling your passion? Maybe it was a parent trying to get you to think sensibly. Maybe it was the fear of failure. Maybe it was someone telling you that you simply weren’t good enough. At what point were we taught to be afraid of taking risks?”
As educators, Gouine said, “we are left with a mind-altering choice: The weight of our decisions can truly change the world. Will we teach our children to be afraid of the unknown or to face it with unwavering confidence, knowing they will come out the other side stronger than they were before?”
Then she made this public vow: “I will never teach my students to be afraid. I will never strip them of their identity for my own benefit. I will never silence their voices or dull their shine.”
And, she concluded, “we are dream makers. ... When children open up their hands and reveal their hearts to us, it becomes our mission to protect this fragile thing with the utmost care and diligence. It is time, time to break the chains that bind our students, time to break down the barriers that prevent them from running full speed ahead, time to provide our students with the opportunity to face their challenges with bravery and strength. It is time we break traditions, never spirits.”
Keeping with the gala’s theme -- “Teachers: Developing the Future” -- each of the finalists told the audience a story about a person who has helped developed them as teachers. Gouine’s mother, Dianna Dravenstott, teaches English at Hardaway High School.
“She taught me to ignite the spark and to fuel the flame,” Gouine said, “that each child is worth the effort.”
Gouine wrote in her award application that she was born to teach. Her parents fostered 13 “physically abused, neglected and starved” children from homes of “complete brokenness.” Watching her parents surround these children with love and ensure “they knew that life was not hopeless” proved to be a model for her as a teacher.
“In my classroom, kids come first,” she wrote. “As soon as they walk through the door, I notice them. I don’t mean that I simply see them. I want them to know they are noticed. Once you have established a relationship with your students, the rest falls into place. Kids are willing to work hard for someone who loves them. Kids respect someone who loves them. Kids break down barriers for someone that loves them.”
The strong connection Gouine makes with students enables her to successfully challenge them to think critically, the selection committee noted in the foundation’s news release.
“Melanie has a unique way of motivating her students,” said selection committee chairman Warren Steele, retired senior vice president for U.S. marketing at Aflac. “Her classroom was thrilling, and her passion for these kids was palpable. She made me want to go back to fourth grade.”
The other selection committee members are Carl Brown (insurance agent, C. Brown & Associates), Sheryl Green (English teacher, Jordan Vocational High School and 2015 MCSD Teacher of the Year), Kerry Hand (retired CEO of Communicorp), Donna Kemp (retired MCSD principal), Stefan Lawrence (English teacher, Carver High School and 2016 MCSD Teacher of the Year), Bridget Markwood (education consultant), Marquette McKnight (CEO of Media, Marketing and More) and Jimmy Yancey (retired Synovus chairman).
Gouine has been teaching for seven years, all at North Columbus, where her leadership positions have included grade level chairwoman, Helen Ruffin Reading Bowl Team lead coach and Star Steering Committee chairwoman. She earned bachelor’s (2010) and master’s (2012) degrees in early childhood education from Columbus State University.
CSU’s influence continues to inform Gouine’s teaching as she incorporates what she learned at the university’s Ivey Center for the Cultural Approach to History, helping her students consider the political, religious, aesthetic, intellectual and social aspects of what they are studying.
“It is my belief that students cannot truly appreciate the concept without fully understanding ‘the big picture’ — a disservice we’re doing if we don’t teach them to look at the world around them through all of these lenses,” she wrote.
MEEF awards framed certificates and the following prizes as part of its Teacher of the Year program:
▪ $5,000 honorarium to the winner.
▪ $1,000 honorarium to the finalists.
▪ $500 honorarium to the semifinalists, plus a $100 gift card to Ride On Bikes and a $50 gift card to Mabella’s Italian Steakhouse or The Loft.
▪ $100 honorarium to the nominees, plus a $100 gift card from Buckhead Steak & Wine, two bike rentals at Ride On Bikes and two tickets to a show at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts.
Education supporter award
Also during Thursday night’s gala, MEEF honored Ed Sprouse with the Jim Buntin Excellence in Education Award.
The award is given to a community leader who advocates excellence in education. It is named in honor of the retired Muscogee County superintendent who helped start the foundation in 1996.
Sprouse, retired from the Columbus law firm Page, Scrantom, Sprouse, Tucker & Ford, is a former chairman of the MEEF board.
“His keen understanding of the critical partnership our school system plays with our community has served us well,” said former MEEF board chairwoman Janet Davis. “... Our school system has greatly benefited from his expertise and dedication. Ed is a consummate and gracious gentleman, always ready to lend a hand and giving wise and measured advice and counsel.”
Along with MEEF, the other educational organizations that Sprouse has served include the Columbus Technical College Foundation, the Columbus Museum, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Chattahoochee Valley and the Leadership Council for the CSU College of Education and Health Professions.
The previous Buntin Award recipients are Buntin himself, Jack Goldfrank, David Rothschild II, Guy Sims, John Greenman, Meridith Jarrell, Teddie Ussery, Carmen Cavezza, Frank Brown and Philip Schley.
MEEF is a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering educational excellence by focusing on teachers who are innovative and exceptionally effective in their profession. In its 22-year history, the foundation has awarded more than $2.2 million to such educators through financial incentives, grants and the Harvard Fellows program.