Teacher of the Year Reflections
Reflections from the 2017-2018 Teachers of the Year
By Mary Shewan
Decatur High School student Mary Shewan researched, conducted the interviews, and wrote the following story. Mary is currently an intern in the CSD Central Office, and she will be writing stories throughout the school year on various topics. This is a little about Mary:
Hello, my name is Mary Shewan. I am interning at the Central Office, and I am a senior at Decatur High School. I am 17 years old, and I have been in the Decatur School System since 3rd grade. I am interning because I am in Decatur High School’s Career Program and Convergence Media is my program (you can check out my other work here: https://3ten.org/staff/?writer=Mary%20Shewan). Outside of academics, my passions include reading, listening to music, and going to Suno with my friends for yogurt drinks.
I spent several weeks interviewing the 2017-2018 Teachers of the Year about their experiences and reflections on their year as Teacher of the Year. Along with the interview responses, I asked each teacher to provide phrases and words to describe their career so far. Meeting each TOTY was a wonderful experience for me. I hope my interviews provide some perspective on why they were selected as TOTY and why I personally feel that our school system has the best teachers.
Elizabeth Lewis- Decatur High School:
Elizabeth Lewis, the Decatur High School Teacher of the Year, has been teaching for 17 years. She began her teaching career at the University of Georgia. Her first job took place in Japan. “I’m half Japanese, so it was part of my heritage to teach in Japan. My mom was born and raised there,” said Lewis.
Heading to Japan was a culture shock for her. This is because the education system in Japan is entirely different from the education system in the United States. In Japan, Lewis was in charge of a classroom of 40 students. “Because Japan is such a dense society, you learn from a very young age how to effectively learn, play, and clean in large groups,” said Lewis.
After teaching overseas, she switched career paths to become a swim coach at the University of Wisconsin. She enjoyed her time there, but she realized coaching wasn’t for her.
“[At] 25 years old, I didn’t have patience. I wanted more autonomy, and I wanted to be in charge right away,” said Lewis. She thought about it and eventually switched back to teaching and felt that it was a much better fit. She knew that with teaching, she was able to have more of an influence on kids. Teaching also allows her to feel passionate about helping to show young people how to see and believe--see what they can be and believe that they can do it.
The moments, like when a student understands something, help her see past the rough situations and help her to control how she feels about her day. “I never have a 100% good day or a 100% bad day because it’s broken up into chunks. There are moments in each day that certainly stand out. Teaching is a difficult job, and breaking it into chunks allows her to process both positive and negative information successfully,” said Lewis.
Skills like this are the skills she applies to her everyday teaching, which helped her receive Teacher of The Year. She was surprised at getting the recognition because there are so many of the teachers at Decatur High School that deserve this title. As grateful as she is for this opportunity, she gives credit to the kids. She can love her job because she can support students in becoming the amazing people they are on their way to being.
Her three words are: Meaningful, challenging, keeps me on my toes.
Karen Durisch- Glennwood Elementary School:
Karen Durisch has been teaching for 24 years and being named Glennwood Teacher of the Year is the second time in her career having the TOTY title. She also won Teacher of the Year her fourth year teaching in another school district. “It’s cool to me that my “Teacher of the Year awards” kind of bookend my career. It tells me that I’m still doing something right, which is nice because I love what I do,” said Durisch.
She was able to discover the passion for education at an early point in her life. In elementary school, she was given the opportunity to be things like a ‘reading buddy’ and a ‘bus buddy.’ That’s where she believes the fire was lit for her. “I wanted to be like the teachers I remember having. I had a handful of teachers who really inspired me,” said Durisch. She also grew up with a neighbor with special needs, and that helped her find her passion for special education. Her love for teaching special education stems from the fact that she has “a lot of empathy for the kids who learn differently.”
Durisch runs her classroom on the principle that there is always a way to help children learn. She says, “You just have to find out what makes them tick.” Building from her ‘everyone can learn’ principle, Durisch also works under what she calls ‘an open door policy.’ She knows that everything in a child’s life comes to play while they’re learning and that she has to work around that. Decatur makes this process easier. Durisch says, “The ability to connect with families is something I really love about Decatur.”
The overall journey as a teacher has been a long process, but Durisch is grateful for the knowledge she has gained from it. “There is evolution as a teacher; there are different stages you go through. You’re never done” said Durisch. She has been doing this for 24 years, and she knows there are plenty of things for her left to learn. Overall, Durisch’s thoughts on teaching are summed up easily. She says, “Teaching isn’t easy, but when a student does something I can congratulate, that’s what it’s all about for me.”
Her three words/phrases are: When life hands you lemons, make lemonade, tenacity, resilience.
Jessica Allen- College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center:
Jessica Allen is the oldest of three children. She was old enough to help her mother with her younger siblings, so her entire life has been about playing the caretaker role. “I was learning how to be a caretaker from a young age,” said Allen. During her adolescent years, she started working in a children’s center, and her love for teaching grew from there. There is no doubt in her mind that teaching is what she is supposed to be doing. “It’s one of those natural things that just kind of happened. Now it’s like I don’t know what I else would do,” said Allen.
When she started her teaching career, she was at a monastery school, where she taught at for seven years. Through that experience, she discovered her love for the younger kids, specifically pre-k and kindergarten. She then found her way to Decatur, and this is her 6th year at College Heights. She says, “I really enjoy [ College Heights] because we have such great administration, all the teachers are very helpful, and it’s a great place to come.” She enjoys the help teachers offer each other because she remembers what it was like as a new teacher. When she started teaching, she would look at other teachers she was working with for inspiration. “Through all those experiences, that’s how I started to fill up my toolbox of teaching strategies,” said Allen.
Despite how helpful these strategies can be, it’s quite hard to successfully map out a school year. Every year is a different year, it never goes the way she plans, but Allen feels grateful for the strategies she has developed over the year. She is also grateful because she is able to understand the kids she teaches. “Remembering that pre-k children are very young and have only been on this planet for 4-5 years, which is so different,” said Allen.
For her, there’s no stopping point, as a teacher. “It doesn’t stop. It’s not like “here’s the award; you can check that off.” You gotta keep going and learn from others,” said Allen.
Her three words are: Rewarding, challenging, and exciting.
Krysta Johnson- Renfroe Middle School:
Krysta Johnson began her career in Decatur teaching 6th-grade humanities, which ended up not being her niche. That experience made her think about what her dream class would be. She says, “We started without much, I pitched a culture class, and had the curriculum for 6th grade, 7th grade, and 8th grade.”
Johnson remembers the small white stove in her room and how there were not enough knives for the whole class. Now, however, they have expanded to multiple stoves and an organized garden. She says, “I love that the class is so successful. I get to teach what I’m interested in and it’s very hands-on and applicable in real life.”
Although she loves her job now, she has learned a lot since starting her teaching career. She says, “In my first three years, I easily put in more than 10 hours every day. I really didn't know much about 12-13-year-olds when I was 21. Managing their behavior so I could teach, and they could learn, was the most important thing I needed to get my bearing on”.
She grew as a teacher and learned through chasing her individual interests while trying to find a bridge between her and the students. She found the bridge pretty quickly and now has a mostly smooth running classroom. She says, “Due to the unusuality of the curriculum, my observation for Teacher of the Year was unusual, to say the least. I had groups of students making butter, making pancakes, and washing dishes. Kitchens function differently than a classroom.” However, she is extremely happy with the course she has made here. She loves her job and is incredibly grateful that she gets to teach what she loves every day.
Her three words are: Grateful, encouraged, and energized.
Kendria Paden- Oakhurst Elementary School:
Kendria Paden’s life has always been centered around Decatur. She went to Decatur schools as a kid, so she has had the opportunity to see a lot of changes within the Decatur community.
After she graduated from college, she immediately threw herself into teaching. “I taught for three years in a private pre-k center and then moved to College Heights in 2003 where I taught for several years before moving to Oakhurst,” said Paden.
She is currently an Early Intervention (EIP) teacher. Before EIP, her only experience teaching was with Pre-K and Kindergarten, and as much as she loved working with that age group, she thinks “it’s a nice change” to be working in the Early Intervention Program. “It does take some getting used to, as does any job shift. The shift from school to school is difficult, even the change from class to class is difficult,” said Paden.
Since she has been a teacher for many years, she now feels like she has a grasp and comfort in the job. She says, “I have to remind myself that I am not going to know it all, that I am going to learn new things every day and every year. And that is ok, as long as you can make mistakes.” This took her a while to get used to. She says, “When you go in your first year you’re like ‘heck yeah I got this’ and then you’re like ‘wait what’s going on?’ Each day of teaching is an adventure, one that challenges my perceptions and encourages growth. Knowing that I am helping students gain knowledge and insight about their world and themselves is the best reason to do this job.”
Her three words are: Supportive, fun, and challenging.
Jennifer Querubin- Westchester Elementary School:
Jennifer Querubin can say with complete and utter confidence that she is where she is supposed to be career-wise. “It’s a true calling. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would always be a teacher. If I ever drifted away from teaching, it would pull me right back,” she said.
She discovered her passion through babysitting. It started in church when she taught the kids who were in choir. During that, she realized how much she loved breaking down information for people. From there, she knew that’s what she wanted to do. She loves her job and is extremely grateful to be able to do what she loves. “‘I love teaching for the internal value because there are not a lot of external rewards. But when I see the light bulb come on with a student, I get so excited,” she said.
With the mindset that it is not about rewards, she was extremely grateful for the opportunity to be a Teacher of the Year. “This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, that I was pretty amazed and shocked by. But at the same time, I needed to live in the moment. I had to pull out the essence that makes me a good teacher,” she said.
Ms. Querubin was named District Teacher of the Year. She says, “I work with the top of the line, so to be noticed like this is both incredible and humbling. The difference I make in the classroom is equivalent to my happiness, I’ve come to realize. I do realize everything I say and do is an impact on others. People and children walk away with an idea of me”.
For her, teaching isn’t about the classroom aspect. She says, “It’s not about the act of teaching, it’s about being in the position to listen and care.” She believes in thinking about students as people and not as pupils. Overall, her mindset of teaching is simple. She says, “All the years have passed, and I still feel the same excitement as when I started.”
Her three phrases are: Teaching with a culturally relative pedagogy, not being afraid to reinvent based on the needs of the students, and showing the children love and acceptance has proven never to fail.
Jonah Goode- 4/5 Academy at Fifth Avenue:
Jonah Goode did not expect to be a teacher. He is a high school dropout and says, “after dropping out of school, I just started working.”
He eventually realized that he would have to go back to school so he could “make more money.” Through that, he discovered teaching. “All of my elders who were helping me in this journey said I should go into education because I have a lot of empathy for people and I communicate information well,” he said.
He went to college and then got his Graduate degree from Piedmont College. He has always worked at Decatur. “I did all of my student teaching in City Schools of Decatur, and then I was hired.” He worked at F.AVE for seven years and then, moved to Renfroe in 2018.
He feels very important as a teacher. He says, “At school, I am their mom, dad, mentor, friend and that is a big deal.” He finds the idea of school to be unnatural, but that is why it is so important to keep the classroom interesting.
Jonah says, “My philosophy is to remind students never to let anyone set their value. They have to begin to set their own benchmarks and self-worth rubric and never to allow someone else’s preset standards define them. You define success. You determine your happiness. I believe that if children attach their intelligence and value to other things besides their assessment scores, they begin to see their potential, and begin to explore, refine, and share other expressive qualities.”
His three words are: fulfilling, unique, and hilarious
Toni Sulmers- Winnona Park Elementary School:
Toni Sulmers’ entire teaching career has been confined to the collection of buildings in City Schools of Decatur. This is her 12th year of teaching, which means it’s her 12th year at Winnona Park Elementary. When she got out of college and began the process of applying for jobs, many people recommended Decatur to her. She says, "I emailed all the principals and I got an interview with then Winnona Park principal, Greg Wiseman." She got hired and never looked back.
She found her love for teaching accidentally. As a student in college, she interned at a middle school in New York. She didn’t expect to love it, but she did, and after that, she knew she wanted to be a teacher.
She says, “What’s funny about that is in high school, a psychic told me I should be a teacher. I brushed it off at the time but now I feel that teaching is my calling.” She feels that with her personality, teaching is a great fit. She loves how high energy the class is, and she has a lot of her own energy and dedication to her students.
Her three words are: joyful, hard work, never boring
Ashlea Edwards- Clairemont Elementary School:
Ashlea Edwards began her teaching journey at Mississippi State. After graduating with a degree in education, she became a long-term sub. She was a long-term sub for a year and a half, and through that, she found Decatur. Edwards worked at F.AVE for three months, Winnona Park for three months, Renfroe for three months, and finally did her last long-term sub job at Clairemont. During the time at Clairemont, she was offered a position for the next school year.
For her, teaching has always been in the cards. She says, “I wanted to be a teacher because I loved kids and loved playing school when she was a child. I originally wanted to be a math teacher, but in college, took a course on exceptional children, and that’s when I switched my major to special education.”
She loves her job, but she can acknowledge the struggles that come with it. Teaching is really hard work. She has found herself waking up in the middle of the night to worry about what in the world she can do to help each and every one of your students. She says, “This is my 5th year teaching, and I enjoy my job, despite the difficulties it might include. I love when my students have that “ah ha” moment when something clicks.”
Her three words/phrases are: be the change, work hard play hard, and perseverance