Many teachers always knew they were going to be teachers. At six or seven years of age, they gathered makeshift students and stood at the front of improvised classrooms and began to play teacher.
But for Mary Whitney Bowen, Teacher of the Year at Sumter County Primary School, doing so would have been too intimidating.
“I remember thinking, ‘me, a young girl from Americus, Georgia, becoming a teacher? How could I ever have what it takes to change the lives of children?’ Even though I enjoyed school and loved just about every teacher I came in contact with, I just did not think I had what it took to be great like them.”
It took Bowen years and the challenges of several key people in her life to finally realize that she belonged among the ranks of those she idolized.
“My younger sister had a learning disability that had gone unnoticed for years,” Bowen said. “It was not until the fourth grade that a teacher finally noticed that something was just not right … Her struggle became our reality.”
Later, Bowen learned that her husband had been misdiagnosed with ADHD until his early teens, when they finally figured out that he was dyslexic.
“To know that he hated school because nobody understood him and others made fun of him absolutely broke my heart,” she said. “His story has taught me to be patient, forgiving, and caring, which are very important qualities to possess in a classroom full of deserving children.
“He taught me that sometimes you have to just take a deep breath and approach with different tactics,” she continued. “I have also learned that every child learns differently and in his own way. It is our job as teachers to help these children find their own strengths and help them to become great.”
Bowen’s journey as an educator has involved a shift in focus away from teacher and toward the student.
“When I first began teaching, my thoughts were about me as the educator and what I could do to educate the children in the classroom,” she said. “After teaching for a couple of years, I began to realize that teaching was about so much more. It was about equipping children with the tools that they will need to be successful on this journey called life.”
Much of her success as a teacher involves creating the right environment for learning to take place. “Students need a place to feel safe from harm,” she continued. “They need a place where they can make mistakes and learn from them and not be punished.
“Today children come to us from all walks of life,” she continued. “But as long as we believe in them, they will rise above and do their very best.”