It could have been an evening of jittery nerves, but one McDuffie County teacher made up her mind long before that she was not the one in control. The seven Teachers of the Year of each McDuffie County school were honored Monday evening during an annual banquet, when the County Teacher of the Year was announced.
"When starting this process, any one of the seven candidates hopes to be the County's Teacher of the Year," Dearing Elementary Teacher of the Year Lori Whatley said. "I just prayed and gave it to the Lord so I didn't have to worry about it anymore."
In his welcoming remarks at the banquet, McDuffie School Superintendent Mark Petersen said "they are all winners in my book." But the one winner for the county for 2010 Teacher of the Year was Mrs. Whatley.
"I am humbled and honored, not just for me, but to represent all the teachers of the county," she said. "I hope I do a good job."
This year's selection process of candidates was different than previous years, with the individuals being chosen by their peers before the end of the 2007-08 school year in order to give them more time to work on the required paperwork and essays.
Also for the first time, a classroom observation of each of the candidates was conducted by the four judges with interviews immediately following their classroom observation. This process mirrors the one used during the state level of the competition.
Held in the new junior high school cafetorium with a dinner catered by The Silver Palm, the banquet was attended by approximately 170 local school administrators, school board members and the teachers and their families. The Thomson High School cheerleaders were the servers and WJBF Channel 6 weekend news anchor Paige Tucker was the emcee of ceremonies.
Each of the Teachers of the Year candidates briefly shared their message of what it means to be a teacher, which was the topic of one of the essays they had to write for the competition.
Maxwell Elementary School's Zebearl Bentley had a catchy phrase reminding teachers of their responsibility "to inspire the desire to aspire" in their students. Thomson High's Pam McCorkle did inspire the others as she spoke of the power of their profession - the power to listen, the power to influence and change lives. That power translated to hope for Thomson Middle School's Bradley Pirkle.
"Anytime you have the opportunity to directly impact the future of students, there's hope for the community," Mr. Pirkle said in his speech.
Shelley Snider said she found her inspiration for teaching in a very unlikely place - her grandmother's funeral, where she heard a story of her grandmother who used only three simple words to describe her profession: "I teach children."
"Not grade levels or subjects, benchmarks or tests," Mrs. Snider said. "We teach children."
Ranging from second graders to adults, some of those children they'd taught gave the introductions for each teacher candidate. Ashley Walker, who is now a teacher herself, gave the introduction for Thomson-McDuffie Junior High's Renee Askew, who was Ms. Walker's seventh grade teacher.
Second grader Shayna Hawkins introduced Ms. Bentley by singing "You are My Sunshine."
Sixth grader Mariah Wall introduced Thomson Elementary's Candy Candler, who taught her in third grade.
"I knew she'd be a good teacher, because with a name like Candy, you can't go wrong," Maria quipped. "And she gave us candy at the beginning of class if we knew the correct answers to the questions."
Senior Meghan Sutton introduced Ms. McCorkle, who has helped Meghan pursue further education and a possible career in singing. Ninth grader Jenna Leigh-Davis introduced Mr. Pirkle, who was Jenna's band teacher the first year she moved to Thomson. Jenna said she knew Mr. Pirkle would be different from her other teachers because he had "a semi-hip haircut and had on the same Converse sneakers I was wearing."
Mrs. Snider was introduced by sixth grader Tripp Jones, who was in her science class last year.
"Bacteria, viruses, fungi. ... who gets excited about this kind of stuff?" Tripp said. "Well, either Mrs. Snider really knows her stuff and gets excited about it, or she's a really good actress."
Finally, Mrs. Whatley was introduced by Elizabeth Land, a junior at THS who reminisced about Mrs. Whatley being her first grade teacher. Elizabeth told the story of her first days at school, when she would scream and cry and cling to her mother because she didn't want to go into the classroom.
"Mrs. Whatley held me and promised me everything would be okay," Elizabeth said. "No matter how many bad mornings I had, Mrs. Whatley was always comforting and patient. She knew exactly how to make me feel secure. ... Mrs. Whatley is still one of my favorite teachers. To this day, we still keep in touch... Mrs. Whatley, you are the greatest. Thank you so much for helping me my first year. You made it a wonderful experience."
Mrs. Whatley will represent McDuffie County in the Georgia Teacher of the Year program. The state winner will be announced in the spring. Just like Mrs. Whatley felt about the county banquet, her husband isn't stressing about any of the process.
"I cut up and I joke a lot, but I've always been proud of Lori even during her first year of teaching," he said after the banquet. "She's sincere and she's honest in everything she does. Nothing she does is for show. She gives her all. Whether she was nominated or not, and whether she won or not, I'm proud of her."