Representatives from the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation made surprise visits to three classrooms Thursday to announce the finalists for the Muscogee County School District 2019 Teacher of the Year award.
The finalists are:
▪ Shalon Gillespie, Blackmon Road Middle School, math, grades 7-8.
▪ Dacia Irvin, Baker Middle School, math, grade 6.
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▪ Natalie Teasley, Northside High School, chemistry and physics, grades 9-12.
Gillespie told the dozen or so MEEF members who accompanied MCSD superintendent David Lewis to her classroom, “I have the most amazing kids. Can y’all just give them a round of applause? They work so hard. I have seen my students struggle and then lift themselves up, and that encourages me every single day.”
Then she told her students, “Y’all are the reason why I do this. I love my job. I am just truly honored. Thank you.”
Gillespie also told her students that the MEEF members are “community and educational leaders that do this for amazing teachers. I work with some phenomenal teachers — teachers who have mentored me and inspired me and have just been there. Y’all have to thank these people, because they do a lot in our community to help us.”
In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Gillespie said, “I’m a little overwhelmed right now.”
Being a finalist, Gillespie said, “means that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and that this is my calling. It confirms that I’m a part of an amazing community that supports teachers and has the most amazing kids.”
Gillespie is in her 11th year as a teacher, including the past three at Blackmon. She previously taught at Arnold Magnet Academy, another MCSD middle school. She previously worked at TSYS for eight years in various positions, such as marketing analyst, communications analyst, client support analyst and collector. She graduated from Central High School in Phenix City then earned her bachelor’s degree in business management in 2004 and her master’s degree in middle grades education in 2010 from Columbus State University.
The surprise announcement “shocked” Irvin, she said.
“I’m amazed,” she said. “This is really, truly an honor. I do what I do because I love these kids. … I’m so proud of them, and I’m just happy that I could be what I need to be for them.”
Irvin is in her 10th year as a teacher, including the past three at Baker. She previously taught at two MCSD elementary schools: Lonnie Jackson Academy and Dimon Magnet Academy. She earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Troy University in 2009 and her master’s degree in middle grades math from Columbus State University in 2018.
Being a finalist is “huge,” Irvin said. “It’s an excellent opportunity to put my kids and the work that we do at this school in the forefront, just to share all the awesome stuff that happens here and all the awesome teachers who are working so hard for these awesome children.”
Teasley told her students and the MEEF members visiting her classroom that her 7-year-old son enjoyed some of the cookies she received for being one of the 10 semifinalists.
He asked her at that time, “Mom, what comes next?”
“Well, next they narrow it down to the top three,” she replied.
And her son concluded, “I bet they get you cake.”
All of which is why, after Lewis presented her with a cake just like the other two finalists had received, Teasley exclaimed, “He’s going to be so excited to know they got me cake!”
In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Teasley said she is grateful simply being Northside’s nominee. “So for it to come this far, it is not at all expected but such a huge honor,” she said.
At the breakfast MEEF hosted for the nominees Thursday in the National Infantry Museum, Teasley said, she “got a little bit choked up, because it just feels so good that people understand what you’re doing and why you do what you do.”
Teasley has been teaching for eight years, all at Northside. She previously was a health and fitness contractor at Fort McPherson in Atlanta. She earned her bachelor’s degree in dietetics in 2002 and her master’s degree in health promotion and behavior in 2004 from the University of Georgia and her master’s degree in secondary science in 2011 and a specialist’s degree in educational leadership in 2016 from Columbus State University.
“I know there are some many wonderful teachers, even some that never get recognized just from their school,” Teasley said. “So to be recognized in that capacity and then to keep going further, that’s more than I could ask for.”
The 57 nominees, one from each MCSD school, were announced Jan. 30. MEEF’s selection committee read their applications and narrowed the candidates to 10 semifinalists, who were announced Feb. 15. The committee interviewed the semifinalists to determine the finalists. Committee members will observe the finalists teaching a lesson before announcing the winner April 25, during MEEF’s annual gala in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center.
“All the folks we interviewed were outstanding, so it was really difficult for the committee to come down to three,” Hackett said. “There was a lot of discussion, and ultimately we felt these three sort of represented what teachers in Muscogee County are trying to do as far as instruction and improving achievement in children.”
The common denominator among the three finalists, Hackett said, is their passion for teaching.
“They just generated an excitement for the committee members,” he said. “None of the three that were chosen is daunted by today’s education climate.”
Hackett described that climate as challenging teachers to use technology to engage students and educate them for jobs that might not even exist yet.
“The final three are more than up to the task,” he said. “They are finding different ways of reaching each individual student. In any era, that’s the key — building relationships. And when you have a classroom full of students with different needs and abilities and personalities, that requires commitment and energy.”
The committee also wants the Teacher of the Year to be a compelling public speaker about the profession, Hackett said.
“They need to bring the message to the public as far as what is entailed in teaching,” he said. “These finalists, they live it and breathe it, and they show it.”
IF YOU GO
What: Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation annual gala, where the Muscogee County School District 2018 Teacher of the Year nominees will be honored and the winner will be announced.
When: April 25; reception starts at 6 p.m., dinner at 6:45 p.m.
Where: Columbus Convention & Trade Center, 801 Front Ave.
Tickets: $50; on sale March 22 at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts box office, 900 Broadway.
Info: Media, Marketing and More, 706-660-9702.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.