The teachers of the year from each of the Sumter County Public Schools came to the classroom in a variety of ways. Some always knew they wanted to be teachers, others never imagined they would be. But all of them became inspired by what they saw public education doing for students and all of them were honored recently at an awards ceremony at Sumter County Middle School.
The district’s teacher of the year award went to Sumter Middle School’s Rodney Shelton, who described himself as a true Americus person: raised in Americus, attending public schools here and graduating from Georgia Southwestern State University before coming to teach at the middle school sixteen years ago. But he started out in an altogether different field, graduating with a degree in business and human resource management and initially working as a manager of a restaurant.
“I wasn’t one of those people who knew they wanted to be a teacher when they went to college,” Mr. Shelton said. “I decided to become a teacher because I saw it as a way to positively impact my community.
“To be a good teacher, you must be committed to the students’ success,” he continued. “You must have complete conviction to your profession. It’s not a career you enter haphazardly.”
Mr. Shelton’s path to the classroom likely began at age three when his great grandmother, who couldn’t read, instilled in him the importance of learning.
“She would make me read the newspaper to her while she babysat for me each day,” he said. “She died when I was three, but I still remember many of the things she taught me.”
Coach Shelton is also known for his success as a coach, guiding multiple conference championship teams at Sumter Middle School in football, and one in baseball. He sees his work on the field as an extension of his work in the classroom:
“I try to get the players to understand that to be successful as a student or a student/athlete, you must dedicate the time and effort,” he said. “Being focused is also a very important trait for success in the classroom and on the field.”
Staley Middle School’s Teacher of the Year also tracked an unlikely path to the classroom. Tunisia Russell was in management with Gold Kist and then Kraft Foods before finding her true calling.
“While working with Kraft Foods I had the opportunity to volunteer in the school system via Junior Achievement,” she said. “It was then that I realized the importance of being a stakeholder in the future of our youth.”
Ms. Russell was especially inspired by her trips abroad, including the African country of Liberia which she visited through the program “Teachers to the Nation.” There, she saw students walking miles to mold infested and dilapidated schools that didn’t even have electricity.
“And those kids were on time,” Ms. Russell said. “It made me realize that there is a resiliency inside of us even in the most desperate of times.”
She brings that experience to the classroom each day:
“I want my students to understand that with the resources available to them, they have no choice but to be academically successful.”
Sarah Cobb Teacher of the Year, Holli Farr, graduated with a degree in social work from LaGrange College. She first used that career to make a difference in the lives of children.
“I had an especially strong desire to help children facing challenges,” said Ms. Farr, who worked initially at an afterschool program for troubled youth. “The youth there were court mandated or school referred.
“I particularly enjoyed helping these children with their homework,” she continued. “I was thrilled when I could clear the muddy the waters of a math problem or explain history as an exciting story.”
Like Mr. Shelton and Ms. Russell, Ms. Farr earned her teaching certificate through the Georgia Teacher Alternate Preparation Program (GATAPP) whereby people in other professions can transition into teaching.
“My path to the classroom has not been the most traditional path,” Ms. Farr said. “However, my search to discover my passion for teaching makes me appreciate the gift I have been given.”
For Sumter County High School South Campus teacher of the year, Cynthia DeMott, her life-changing transition occurred when she went from teaching chemistry to teaching English.
“It’s been a Godsend to teach English,” said Ms. DeMott. “English just isn’t the classics. It can touch your heart no matter what, and you can make a connection if you look for it.
“When the students finally catch on and grasp an idea, it makes a difference,” she continued. “When they get a piece of writing they can take ownership of, it makes a difference.”
All of the award winners recognized that the teaching might not be the most financially lucrative field, but they have none-the-less been driven to it because of its potential to inspire young lives.
“Good teaching is about being able to see in our students what they can’t see in themselves,” said Sumter County High North Campus Teacher of the Year, Lisa Harry. “Good teaching is based on the principles of good parenting: caring about the welfare of the students, knowing when to be firm and when to give in, and being able to apologize when necessary. Also, it is important to know the students’ problems, insecurities, and potential.”
All of the teachers were recognized by Citizen’s Bank Vice President Sybil Smith, who awarded them each a cash prize from the bank for their efforts. Smith’s children were also a product of the Sumter Public Schools, and she spoke highly of the education they received.
All of the teachers also were introduced by their principals, who offered words of praise. Sumter Primary School Principal Sharon Tullis, spoke about that school’s teacher of the year, Carlee Head:
“She believes that every child can learn and should be able to learn in a fun environment,” Dr. Tullis said of Mrs. Head. “She has said, ‘It is our job as teachers to make learning enjoyable. Good teaching happens when children don’t realize they are learning.’”