Harris County teacher named Georgia Pre-K’s best, clarifies misconception

Harris County educator named state Pre-K Teacher of the Year- “It’s not pre-school, it is school”

Mulberry Creek Elementary Pre-K teacher Becky Thomas-Haden was named the 2018 Georgia Pre-K Teacher of the Year by Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal. "No task is too small, or too big, even though they're just four."
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Mulberry Creek Elementary Pre-K teacher Becky Thomas-Haden was named the 2018 Georgia Pre-K Teacher of the Year by Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal. "No task is too small, or too big, even though they're just four."

She is the 2018 Georgia Pre-K Teacher of the Year for public schools, but even she initially didn’t want to have a classroom full of 4-year-olds.

Now, after 18 years of helping her students learn how to learn and love it, Becky Thomas-Haden still is thrilled when she sees their faces “light up” — and she wouldn’t want to teach any other grade.

“Every day is a new adventure,” Thomas-Haden said Friday as a delegation of state officials, including Georgia first lady Sandra Deal, visited the Harris County School District to present the award in the Mulberry Creek Elementary School cafeteria. “Every day, it’s amazing to see the opportunities you can give the children and where they go with it. No task is too small or too big, even though they’re just 4.”

Thomas-Haden knew she was a finalist, but the announcement was a surprise.

“I was a little overwhelmed,” she said. “I’ve been very blessed and honored. I’ve never done this for any other reason but for the children, and so it was an amazing feeling to walk in and see everybody. It just means a lot.”

The biggest misconception folks have about pre-K, Thomas-Haden said, is that “so many people forget that it’s not preschool; it is school. Pre-K teachers all across the state have such an important job to lay a foundation for the education of children. It all starts with us in pre-K, from holding that pencil and playing with Play-Doh so they can hold that pencil.

“There are so many skills that we teach them that matter in kindergarten, in fourth grade, in ninth grade, all the way through. … And they learn to love school. That’s my biggest goal in pre-K, that they love coming every day and they know that every day is a learning adventure.”

Thomas-Haden admitted she was among those who didn’t think highly of pre-K when she started her teaching career 22 years ago, all in HCSD, after graduating from the University of West Georgia (1997) and Harris County High School (1993).

She began as a first-grade teacher at Pine Ridge Elementary School and taught kindergarten at Mulberry Creek when it opened in 1998. Jeff Branham, the retired HCSD human resources chief, was the Mulberry Creek principal then and needed to fill a pre-K teacher slot.

He moved Thomas-Haden, she recalled, “because I was a little eccentric for a kindergarten and traditional first-grade classroom. I did flexible seating before it was the fad now. … We weren’t doing worksheets. My kids weren’t sitting at their desks. … We were working on the floor doing math with clipboards and manipulatives. I put site words on posters on the ceiling tiles.”

Thomas-Haden initially didn’t like the decision.

“I was scared,” she said. “… So many people think we’re not actually teaching in pre-K, that we’re playing, but we are teaching through play.”

Mentors such as Angel Culp, who was the school district’s pre-K director, helped her adjust.

“She said, ‘You can do this,” Thomas-Haden recalled. “‘Do what you’ve been doing and have fun with it, and the sky’s the limit.’ And that’s what I did.”

Just ask Alex Dagenhart, the region’s consultant for the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, which oversees the state’s pre-K program.

“She’s just very compassionate, does everything over the top, goes the extra mile,” he said. “She does what she can to go beyond the minimum.”

For example, Dagenhart said, Thomas-Haden often changes her classroom’s decorations, depending on the unit she is teaching, such as a circus or a beach.

“She just makes it fun,” he said. “I mean, if you were 4 years old, who wouldn’t want to be in that classroom?”

Mulberry Creek principal Beverly Weaver called Thomas-Haden “the most dedicated, humble teacher I’ve ever seen. It’s all about the children, and she is just a master of every single standard.”

Deal, a former teacher, noticed that excellence simply by watching Thomas-Haden on video and the way her students responded to her at the announcement.

“They love her,” Deal said, “and she is such a good example of what we want our teachers to be like.”

Along with the award, Thomas-Haden received $3,000 for herself and $2,000 for a classroom makeover. The school received $100 to pay for the celebration and $2,500 to pay for travel and substitutes while she represents Georgia Pre-K throughout the state.

Meghan McNail, the coordinator for the Georgia Pre-K Teacher of the Year program, explained the selection process.

Teachers must have taught pre-K in the state for at least three years. Candidates apply online in the spring. This year, approximately 175 applied. A panel of educators chooses three finalists among public schools and three finalists among private childcare centers.

The finalists submit a video of themselves teaching a small-group lesson. Selection committee members visit the finalists and observe them teaching in their classrooms and conduct interviews with them in Atlanta.

The Georgia Pre-K Teacher of the Year for private centers will be announced next week.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.