Education

And the winner is: Muscogee County School District 2019 Teacher of the Year announced

Teacher of the year to students: ‘I love you, each and every one of you’

Ledger-Enquirer reporter Mark Rice interviews 2019 Muscogee County Teacher of the Year Dacia Irvin and her students.
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Ledger-Enquirer reporter Mark Rice interviews 2019 Muscogee County Teacher of the Year Dacia Irvin and her students.

The 2019 Teacher of the Year in the Muscogee County School District was announced Thursday night.

Dacia Irvin, a math teacher at Baker Middle School, accepted the award during the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation’s annual gala, attended by a sellout crowd of more than 1,100 people in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center.

The two other finalists were Shalon Gillespie, a math teacher at Blackmon Road Middle School, and Natalie Teasley, a chemistry and physics teacher at Northside High School.

“I am pleased, honored, humbled to accept this award,” Irvin said during her speech, “and to join past recipients, who I have long admired and respected.”

Irvin thanked MEEF, her school, her family and her friends, and she congratulated the other 56 nominees.

“I could not think of another profession where we have the direct ability to leave a lasting mark on our world,” she said. “As a child of an airman, I remember traveling often all over our wonderful nation. I also remember finding secret places to write the words, ‘Dacia was here.’ … It was my small way of leaving my mark on a world that was so big to my childlike mind.

“As teachers, we have the chance to figuratively plaster this phrase every day on 100 or so young minds. We have the awesome and mostly challenging ability to spark the idea, light the fire and inspire the child who will make a significance difference in our community, society and maybe even the world.”

But the educational system doesn’t always allow teachers to leave such marks, Irvin asserted. The benchmarks of grades and standardized tests, which measure academic success, force teachers to try to fit differently shaped students into the same round holes, she said.

“Instead of making differently shaped holes, the holes are all the same round shape — a reflection of our society’s desire to hold all students to some predetermined standard of what success is supposed to look like,” she said. “… But our students are not all the same. As a result, many educators feel the frustration that comes with trying to force a star-shaped block into a small round hole.”

Then she offered a solution.

“We need to work with the intention each day to change the shape of the environment,” Irvin said. “… If our classes are filled with the stars, triangles and hearts, we need to build star-, triangle- and heart-shaped holes. We should strive to adapt our practice to meet their needs.”

And this is what’s at stake, Irvin declared:

“For many of our students,” she said, “we are their only hope.”

Irvin urged her colleagues to “continue growing, guiding and loving your students, because you may have the next president, Supreme Court justice, doctor, lawyer, business owner, performer, volunteer, activist or even National Teacher of the Year sitting in your classroom.”

Irvin insisted that she works “every day with teachers and staff who are equally deserving” of recognition.

“I consider it an honor to walk into a classroom and help students critically think about the world they live in,” she said. “I consider it a privilege to help students achieve their dreams. I am one of those fortunate people who goes home every day knowing that I have made my mark on the world.”

Retired educator Tom Hackett, formerly provost of CSU and superintendent of Phenix City Schools, is chairman of this year’s selection committee. While visiting Irvin’s classroom, it was clear Irvin connects with her students, Hackett said.

“Her classroom was thrilling, and her passion for these kids was palpable,” he said in MEEF’s news release. “It was hard to get the committee to leave her classroom.”

In her application for the award, Irvin wrote, “Educating children is so much more than the sum of knowledge retained by our students at the end of the year. It is about planting a nurturing a seed of hope. We are the ones who believe in our children when no one else will.”

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. Nine of those 10 semifinalists earned at least one degree from Columbus State University. The committee interviewed the semifinalists to determine the three finalists, who were announced March 7. Committee members observed the finalists teaching a lesson to determine the winner.

Sheryl Green, the 2015 MCSD Teacher of the Year from Jordan Vocational High School, echoed Hackett’s comments about Irvin after observing her teach.

“She represents all of us — the entire profession,” Green said in the news release. “Her passion for her students, her dedication to learning more, and the way she inspired us — longtime teachers — was remarkable.”

Irvin’s commitment to her students goes beyond the classroom.

“I eat lunch with them, I go to community sports events and I contact parents often to let them know the awesome things their children accomplish,” Irvin wrote. “My mission as a teacher is simple: To build up generations of leaders and innovative thinkers. I need them to know everything they do is significant in a global way.”

Irvin has been a teacher for 10 years, all in MCSD. She started her career at Dimon Magnet Academy in 2009, teaching all the core subjects in fifth grade. She moved to Lonnie Jackson Academy in 2014 and taught fourth-grade English Language Arts and social studies.

Since 2016, she has taught sixth- and seventh-grade math at Baker. She serves as a Math Support Team Central Region facilitator for the district, a PAGE Academic Bowl team coach, a math team coach and a student council adviser.

She is a 1999 graduate of Kendrick High School, then earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Troy University in 2009 and a master’s degree in middle grades math from CSU in 2018.

In addition to being celebrated at the gala, the nominees were treated in March to a breakfast, where 2018 MCSD Teacher of the Year Melanie Gouine of North Columbus Elementary School and the National Teacher of the Year spoke.

Each nominee received a framed certificate of recognition, two bike rentals at Ride On Bikes, a $100 gift card from Buckhead Steak & Wine and a $100 honorarium from MEEF. The 10 semifinalists also received a $100 gift card from Ride On Bikes and a $50 gift card from Mabella’s Italian Steakhouse or The Loft and a $500 honorarium from MEEF. The three finalists also received a $1,000 honorarium from MEEF. The Teacher of the Year also received a $5,000 honorarium from MEEF and will be featured on an OutFront Media digital billboard.

Other selection committee members are: Scott Allen, senior principal and partner of the 2WR architecture firm; Spencer Garrard, lecturer in CSU’s College of Education and Health Professions; Geniece Granville, vice president of Davis Broadcasting; Green, the 2015 MCSD Teacher of the Year from Jordan Vocational High School, now an MCSD teacher quality specialist; Shane Larkin, the 2017 MCSD Teacher of the Year from Early College Academy; Stefan Lawrence, the 2016 MCSD Teacher of the Year from Carver High School and now assistant principal at Aaron Cohn Middle School; Marquette McKnight, CEO of Media, Marketing and More and executive director of MEEF; and Jimmy Yancey, retired chairman of Synovus Financial Corp.

Another award

MEEF also presented another award Thursday night — this one not given every year but only when the foundation considers a supporter of local education deserves the honor.

Retired MCSD educator Harry Vernon is the latest recipient of the Jim Buntin Excellence in Education Award, named in honor of the retired superintendent and MEEF cofounder.

Vernon, a veteran of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army, worked for 40 years in MCSD. He was principal of four schools, including the last 22 years of his career at Carver High School, which under his leadership established its math and science magnet program. He has served on the local and state Partners In Education boards.

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 23-year history, the foundation has awarded more than $2.4 million to such educators through financial incentives in the Teacher of the Year program, the Harvard Fellows program and other grants.

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