The McDuffie Board of Education has been taken to school by the state Department of Education and now has plans to apply the lessons learned.
School officials knew they had a winner for the 2008 Teacher of the Year with Thomson High School teacher Robin Dudley.
"Her class is the most requested one at THS," said THS Assistant Principal Lynn Cato. "She is able to reach all kinds of learners because she makes it fun and engaging... She is also an encouragement to our other faculty members, writing them notes and emails and leaving them gifts."
But she didn't bring home the title from the Georgia TOTY banquet in Atlanta on March 29. Now Beth Newton, the McDuffie County Teacher of the Year coordinator and Federal Programs director, said she wants to help local teachers have a better chance at winning the award.
"I am going to contact the DOE and just see what I can do in the future," Dr. Newton said. "I want to look at what we can do differently as a county in the process to improve it."
One aspect Dr. Newton said she would like to address is the timing of the process. Not all systems choose their top teacher at the same time, so some have more time to answer the essay questions.
Dr. Newton also is going to form a local advisory council of past Teachers of the Year. McDuffie has had three teachers to be selected as a finalist for the state, so she hopes they can all be a part of the council.
"So I just want it to be good for all those who become TOTY at their respective schools," Dr. Newton said. "If you are the TOTY for the county, then your packet goes on to the state. ... We want all those packets to be the best they can be. So I think this advisory board will be a big help."
After learning she did not win, Mrs. Dudley said she was disappointed, but the lessons she gained from the experience far outweigh the outcome. And it was not a total loss. Mrs. Dudley said she received several prizes as one of the 10 finalists; plus her wisdom as a teacher will still be sought.
"I get to be a part of an advisory board with the DOE this year. We will be establishing or changing policy. I will get to have a voice in that as a finalist," she said. "I may even have a chance to be a judge for the TOTY next year... So there are some opportunities that are still available to me because of this."
In spite of the bright side, Dr. Newton said she will be in contact with state officials to find out how Mrs. Dudley scored on her site visit, and to read the comments from the interviews. Dr. Newton said not only is she trying to learn from the experience, but she is trying to make sense of the unexpected loss.
When Mrs. Dudley was named the McDuffie County TOTY last October, THS Principal Rudy Falana said "She openly believes that it's the learning, not the teaching that is important." The other administrators and her colleagues agree.
But the opinions are not just from local people who could be biased. The selection of TOTY is a process of steps. First, a winner is selected from each school system. Then, the field is narrowed down from 147 across the state to 10 finalists by a panel of judges. The judges read each teacher's response to eight essay questions ranging from their personal philosophy of teaching to issues facing education. Before the banquet in Atlanta began, Mrs. Dudley said a lady who told her she was one of those judges approached her.
"She told me that she wanted to meet me and put a face with my essays," Mrs. Dudley said. "She told me 'In your responses, you were not speaking from the 'I' perspective. You spoke from your family's and your student's perspective. ... If you don't win this, then something is wrong.'"
In the next phase of the competition, a separate panel of judges visits the classroom of each of the 10 finalists and observes them teaching, interviews their students and interviews the teacher. A video is made during this process, and then shown during the final banquet. Dr. Newton said there was no doubt that Mrs. Dudley's video was better than the others, and many people at the banquet told them so.
"So we are happy for her because she did represent McDuffie County well, ... and she will be a big help for us as we go into next fall picking our next teacher of the year," she said.