In true teacher fashion, Cherie Howard encouraged her audience to think deeper.
"When we define teacher, most people think of school teachers. However, let's probe deeper," Mrs. Howard said, adding that everyone is a teacher because they daily set an example and role model. "Everything we say and everything we do matters, because someone always is watching, someone always is listening, someone always is taking notes in their mind."
What Mrs. Howard says and does in the next few months will be scrutinized more than ever. Mrs. Howard, a pre-k teacher at Maxwell Elementary School, was named McDuffie County's Teacher of the Year Monday evening at the school system's annual banquet.
"I'm so excited, I'm still shaking on the inside," she said after the banquet. "I'm proud to represent not only McDuffie County, but the pre-k class. Who would've thought pre-k would win?"
Mrs. Howard's 8-year-old daughter, Ansley, said she had her fingers crossed on both hands during the banquet, hoping her mother would win. Maxwell Elementary Principal Donna Bennett said when Mrs. Howard's name was announced, Mrs. Bennett broke her necklace, which sent beads flying across the banquet table and caused Mrs. Howard's father to knock over his water glass.
"We were a mess, we were so excited," Mrs. Bennett said with a laugh.
"McDuffie County is so blessed with so many good teachers. To have my daughter become the county Teacher of the Year is beyond any words I can come up with," said Jim Randolph, Mrs. Howard's father. "I'm speechless; but, I'm honored, and tickled, and blessed."
The six Teachers of the Year of each McDuffie County school were honored during the banquet, which was held in the middle school's cafetorium. Approximately 250 people, including local school administrators, school board members, teachers and their families attended the banquet, which was catered by Mr. David Moton.
The Thomson High School varsity and junior varsity cheerleaders were the servers and WAGT NBC 26 news anchor Paige Tucker was the emcee of ceremonies.
The six candidates were chosen by their peers before the end of the 2009-10 school year, and a panel of judges from other school systems selected the top teacher. Classroom observation of each of the candidates was conducted by the judges with interviews immediately following their classroom observation. This process mirrors the one used during the state level of competition.
"My pre-k kids did so great when the judges came to the room," Mrs. Howard said. "I'm so proud of them."
During the banquet, each of the Teachers of the Year candidates shared who or what inspires them as a teacher. Thomson Elementary's Tina Butler said her elementary reading teachers impressed her so much that she would go home and imitate them in front of the mirror. Thomson High School's agriculture teacher Rick DuBose credited his own agriculture teacher in high school for teaching him how to be a leader and continuing to inspire him to instill the same quality in his own students.
Thomson Middle School's Clint Hilson shared how his first career in criminal justice was unfulfilling. Since he became a teacher, he said he has learned that life is fun and to be treasured. Mrs. Howard played her guitar and sang a song she wrote titled "As We Teach."
Dearing Elementary's Mikelyn McCord confessed that she was destined before birth to become an educator. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. George Drake, both taught in McDuffie County schools for longer than 50 and 30 years respectively. Mrs. McCord compared teaching to a spark that lights a fire.
"So, if each one teaches one, then every one will be taught," she said. "So, pass it on."
Norris Elementary's Hilda Van read excerpts from a writing assignment in which her fifth grade students had to write about their teacher. The students' comments included, "In Ms. Van's class, it feels like we're at church because Ms. Van teaches like a preacher preaches," and "No matter how special you are, if you do something wrong, she will yell," and "Ms. Van is fun and she's smart. I guess that's why she's a teacher."
"I do what I do because of the children," Ms. Van concluded.
Each teacher was co-introduced by their administrator and a former student. Ranging in ages from kindergarteners to seniors in high school, the students entertained the audience in various ways including singing, performing magic tricks, telling jokes, reading poems and sharing memories.
Mrs. Howard will represent McDuffie County in the Georgia Teacher of the Year program. The state winner will be announced in the spring.