Everybody has one – that special teacher who always went the extra mile. Who made learning fun and easier. Who listened and really cared. During this month of giving thanks, Best Self Atlanta wants to applaud and celebrate the Atlanta educators who make a genuine difference in their students' lives. Local area public and private schools, PTAs and students, told us about these teachers who truly stand out, not only because of their effective teaching methods, but also for the way they relate to and interact with the young people they teach every day. These instructors are just the tip of the iceberg, representing the many wonderful teachers who comprise Atlanta's educational system. And today we say thanks to each of them for being that "one" to so many.
Sylvan Hills Middle School
"Students need a mentor – someone who can build a relationship with them to show they care."
Every now and then, a former student stops by and says hello to Christina Edwards, a seventh grade English language arts teacher at Sylvan Hills Middle School. The visit always makes the enthusiastic educator, a 10-year teaching veteran, smile. She recalls how difficult this particular student was in a variety of classes and that, one day, the two bonded over Edwards' nail polish. "At first, I was taken aback. But then I thought, 'Maybe I can use this to motivate her,'" she explains. "I told her that if she would come to class and behave and complete her assignments in all of her classes, then I would take her to get her nails polished by professionals." Edwards secured permission from the student's parents, and after two weeks of recognizing her outstanding effort and improvement, the dedicated teacher made good on her promise. And that student improved in all of her classes for the duration of the year.
"Students don't only need a teacher – they need a mom away from home, a mentor and someone who can build a relationship with them to show they care," says Edwards, who knew she wanted to be a teacher even as a child. "Teaching is my innate ability, and my joy of teaching hasn't changed – even after 10 years. Seeing the faces of my students when they finally get a concept is priceless." And the way she guides them to that understanding can be summed up in one Benjamin Franklin quote, she says: "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn."
Duluth High School
"I am blessed with a career that inspires me to work hard every day."
Tenth grade AP world history teacher Geri Flanary has a sign hanging in her classroom: "It's not what you know. It's what you understand." An educator at Duluth High School for 18 years, Flanary, who previously taught AP human geography for 12 years, takes these words to heart. "I want my students to go beyond memorization and learn to think critically and analytically," she says. "I want them to dive into their learning and to truly seek understanding – to question and then want to learn even more."
A teacher for 28 years and the recipient of numerous awards, including Teacher of the Year, Star Teacher and the Nasdaq Teaching Award, Flanary can't remember a time in her life when she didn't want to be a teacher. And ending up at Duluth High School was a dream come true. "I am surrounded by competent, capable and enthusiastic educators. They do not know it, but they push me every day to be a better teacher and a better me," she says. "And Duluth High School has much social and economic diversity among the student body; I learn much from the students every day. They bring the world to my classroom!" They also give Flanary the opportunity to chair a unique program called the Care Team, which helps students who have financial needs that interfere with their learning at school. She says, "When I take a student to get eyeglasses, I watch them choose a pair that will help them to better participate and learn at school, but I also get to watch them take pride in their appearance. How cool is that?"
With such a rich career, it's almost impossible for Flanary to choose her most memorable teaching moment. "After all these years, I still take great delight in the daily wins that are part of a teacher's life," she concludes. "What is my most memorable moment? Ask me tomorrow. Chances are the answer will be different because I am blessed with a career that inspires me to work hard every day."
The Galloway School
"Teachers can learn from students as much as students can from teachers."
Sam Biglari often has his work cut out for him. Not many freshmen enjoy political science or government, so this 22-year teaching veteran at The Galloway School has to find ways to make the subject as engaging as possible. And he clearly does. In fact, Biglari says, one of the most rewarding parts of teaching ninth grade political science, 10th grade AP U.S. government and 12th grade AP comparative government is "seeing students who were not even interested in government or politics at the beginning of their freshman year take all of my government classes, major in political science or international politics, get involved in political campaigns and civic organizations and pursue a career in law or politics."
In many instances, students can credit Biglari and his personal teaching philosophy for helping them develop that enthusiasm for the field. "Students learn best when they are drawn to learning," he notes. "And teachers can learn from students as much as students can from teachers." That reciprocal approach to teaching has been apparent in Biglari's classroom – and championed by The Galloway School – since he became a teacher in 1992. According to Biglari, "I have the support of our school and administration, which is very important for a teacher to be successful. I have always had a passion and interest in working with students, and being at Galloway has maintained my energy and passion for the profession."
St. Pius X Catholic High School
"I wanted to help build confidence in [young girls] so they could go on to do big things."
For Sara Geiger, who teaches ninth, 10th and 12th grade math, including algebra, geometry and statistics, it was her own high school experience that encouraged her to enter the teaching profession. "My high school years were so important to my growing as a person, and I learned so much about myself that I wanted to help others do the same," says Geiger, who also serves as assistant athletic director, head women's soccer coach and assistant cross country coach at St. Pius X Catholic School. "I wanted to become a teacher because I wanted to provide a positive role model for adolescents. I also have a big heart for all of the young girls that struggle with body image and wanted to help build confidence in them so they could go on to do big things in their lives."
For the last seven years, she has done just that – and was awarded the Teacher of the Year honor for the 2013-2014 school year. Geiger attributes her success in the classroom not only to the supportive St. Pius community, but also to using humor and her own passion for math to help gain her students' attention and make the subject interesting to them. It also helps that she is a truly vibrant, creative and tech-savvy educator who wants to see her students flourish in all areas. "I really enjoy getting to know my students by showing them that I am interested in their successes in math as well as their other classes, team performances and social areas," she concludes. "So many times you will see someone in your class succeed, and that slight bit of success will help build confidence that is inside each child. Seeing their glowing faces makes it worth it every day."
Dacula High School
"Education is not a job to me – it is a way of life."
During his 14-year career as a teacher, Jason Holcombe has had the honor of working at Cedar Shoals High School, Dacula High School, North Gwinnett High School and Jackson County High School. In each school, he found great success. But he loved Dacula High School and the surrounding community so much that he recently returned to teach 10th grade AP world history, as well as serve as assistant athletic director and director of football operations. "I have made it my home," says the University of Georgia graduate, who is fully certified to teach broad field social studies and AP courses for U.S. history, American government and world history. "Education is not a job to me – it is a way of life. I absolutely love that my job allows me to raise my family and let them be a key part of what I do for a living."
And what Holcombe does, along with his "band of brothers and sisters" in the social studies department, is quite impressive. "My teaching philosophy is to teach students the relevance of history and how it shapes their lives," he explains. "I try to make them productive citizens who want to improve our society. I try to make history fun and interesting rather than just names and dates." That approach helps Holcombe dare to be great – something he encourages in and expects from each of his students. "I challenge my students to be great in all things because there are so many negative forces in the world that we must face. And they are not alone in this challenge because I'm doing it with them as we go through the year."
The effort clearly has worked. In fact, Holcombe's favorite experience as a teacher is watching his students walk across the stage at graduation. Often, one stops to thank him for the hard work and lessons they learned – something he remembers from his own high school days. "It is those relationships that I cherish most," he says. "Knowing that you have had a positive influence on a student and the world makes all the long hours and hard work well worth it."
Chamblee Charter High School
"Nothing comes easy, but when it does come, the payoff is tremendous."
Jeremy Karassik is honest about his first day as a teacher. "I had no formal training and no idea what to really expect," he muses. Things certainly have changed over the last 10 years, as the ninth grade U.S. government/civics and 12th grade economics teacher has become one of the most respected educators at Chamblee Charter High School. Much of that success can be attributed to his approach to teaching. "A quote from Frederick Douglass that has been on my syllabus more than others is, 'If there is no struggle, there is no progress,'" he says. "Nothing comes easy, but when it does come, the payoff is tremendous."
And Karassik, who also serves as an athletic liaison, wants his students to experience that kind of payoff. That's why he strives to make the material he presents daily relevant to their lives. "If they can make a personal connection to the lectures, activities and assignments, they are going to remember it and, more importantly, apply it," he notes. Because he understands that the subject matter may not be terribly compelling to young people, he tries to bring his lessons to life. For instance, instead of lecturing about the three branches of the U.S. government, he invited a federal law enforcement agent into the classroom to make it more interesting. It's that kind of unique thinking that makes him stand out. Yet, Karassik is humble and actually credits his longtime colleagues with allowing him to enjoy success at Chamblee Charter High School, where he has spent his entire teaching career.
"My department is great. I have worked with Steve Rubino, Jennifer Tinnell, Kurt Koeplin, Gail Barnes and Brian Ely my entire career. They are the best resources I know," he says. "Most of them attended my wedding, and they are great friends and real inspirations. They are all much more deserving of attention than I am."
BEST Academy High School
"My teaching philosophy is to celebrate our mistakes."
Being in Erica Pereira's Spanish class doesn't always mean sitting in a desk. In fact, you never know where you might end up. "We have hiked volcanoes in Nicaragua, visited the Panama Canal, seen the Mayan pyramids in Tikal, Guatemala, and visited U.S. diplomats at the embassies abroad," explains Pereira, who teaches all levels of Spanish to grades nine through 12 at BEST Academy High School, an all-male, public school in Atlanta's Bankhead community. These once-in-a-lifetime experiences are part of the school's annual study/volunteer abroad program, which Pereira herself started. The program is supported financially and logistically by parents, the administration, and people and resources in the host countries. The program allows students to visit Spanish-speaking locales, live with host families for two weeks, volunteer with local children's organizations and immerse themselves in the language and culture. "The students return seeing themselves as global citizens and have more of an understanding of their place in the world and their community here in Atlanta," she continues. "It is life changing to my students and their families."
The opportunity to share these experiences with students is something Pereira never expected, especially since she had no plans to be a teacher. A former interpreter and translator, as well as an adult educator at Berlitz Language Centers, Pereira was encouraged by a friend to apply for a teaching job in the Atlanta Public School system. She finally did and has now been a teacher for 12 years; she also is a founding teacher of the relatively young BEST Academy. Her extensive experience made her a perfect fit for teaching young people, and her unique teaching philosophy has made learning a new language more accessible to them. "My teaching philosophy is to celebrate our mistakes," she notes. "Learning a new language can be a daunting task, especially for teenagers who want to express themselves in a clear and mature way. However, when you learn a language, you have to make mistakes. On the first day of class, I explain to the students that they have to make a million mistakes to become fluent. This makes class a lot less stressful, and you can see them becoming braver and more confident throughout the school year. Celebrating mistakes and even learning to laugh at yourself are vital in Spanish class – and even more so in life!"
Montgomery Elementary School
"All children are special, and all children can learn."
Patricia McCrery was inspired to pursue a career in teaching when she was in the seventh grade. Her teacher, Mrs. Pat Kidder, was the kind of instructor that she knew she wanted to be. "She demonstrated patience, empathy and respect for all of her students," says McCrery, who has taught fifth grade math and science at Montgomery Elementary School since 2007. "You could tell when you walked in her classroom every day that she cared about you and that she wanted you to be successful. She even made diagramming sentences seem fun!"
Seeing that kind of passion and attentiveness has translated into McCrery's own 16-year teaching career. "All children are special, and all children can learn," she notes. And she credits a particular source for her ability to succeed in her profession while providing her students with the tools they need to perform at the level she knows they can achieve. "I would not be able to perform my job effectively without the support of my [students'] parents," she concludes. "Fortunately, over the years, I have had extremely supportive and helpful parents. They have donated their time and resources to help me be the best teacher that I can possibly be. For that, I am truly thankful!"
Duluth High School
"I set high standards for my students and athletes. I expect their best effort at all times."
When Jim Reason's neighborhood swim team needed a coach in 1990, he decided to give it a try. He had been a swimmer since childhood, and it seemed like a good fit. Little did he know that his hobby ultimately would lead him to a career teaching U.S. history. "Working with kids, coaching and my love of history – it just made sense to pursue this career," he says. Today, Reason is in his 21st year as a teacher, and his 16th at Duluth High School. He teaches AP U.S. history to juniors and coaches the swim team. "I'm so thankful for the people around me – the other teachers and coaches that share my experiences," he notes. "I can lean on them and learn from them, and we work together well."
He also is grateful for the many experiences he has had at Duluth High School, including being recognized as a National Board Certified Teacher and watching Kelsey Scott become Duluth's first individual girl state champion swimmer when she won the 500 Freestyle in 2005. "It doesn't get much better than that," Reason says.
Of course, Reason always strives for improvement from both his students and himself. "Be pleased but never be satisfied," he says. "I set high standards for my students and athletes and tell them I expect their best effort at all times. I try to create a comfortable classroom setting that allows them to think for themselves and learn to improve in all areas."
KIPP STRIVE Academy
"I believe in love and logic, optimism and leading by example."
Johanna Mitchell, who teaches seventh grade English and seventh and eighth grade journalism at KIPP STRIVE Academy, recently found herself in awe of her students. "My journalism students had the opportunity to interview the superintendent of our school district," she recalls. "I'll never forget the immense amount of pride I felt while I watched them apply their reporting skills and represent their school in an impressive way."
For Mitchell, these are the moments that confirm she chose the right career path seven years ago. "It's gratifying to hear them use new vocabulary words in conversation and make connections between our class novels and current events," she says. "Most of all, I love witnessing their unbridled enthusiasm and excitement for learning, especially when they finally understand a challenging concept."
The daughter of an educator, Mitchell's perspective on education has always been a positive one. "I believe in love and logic, optimism and leading by example," she says. "All children can achieve great things, and all teachers can help their students be successful, but both parties must be unrelenting in their pursuit of excellence. A teacher who has a mindset of continuous improvement inspires students to do the same."
Charles Brant Chesney Elementary School
"Students with special needs teach me more in a day than I can teach them in a lifetime."
Caitlyn Kelly teaches students with severe and profound disabilities in the second, third and fourth grades. The terms "severe" and "profound" are based on a range of IQ scores, but that's not how this devoted educator sees the children in her classes. "My students are much more than IQ scores and labels," she asserts. "They are smart, kind, funny children, and they are just like everyone else."
That keen understanding led Kelly to pursue a career in teaching with an emphasis on special education. And for the last two years, she has adhered to an important teaching philosophy. "Every student can learn," she says. "Sometimes it takes some creativity and out-of-the-box thinking to give students with special needs access to the general education curriculum. My philosophy involves making sure that all students are receiving what they need to be successful. If a strategy is not working, it is important to come back to the drawing board until something is found that works."
That includes finding resources that are grade-level appropriate and will challenge students, such as the poem "The Bear in There," which her class truly enjoyed and comprehended – just like the general education class. It also involves Kelly working with her fellow teachers and visiting therapists to tailor lessons to the students' motor skills and communication needs. But in the end, it all comes down to one thing for Kelly. "There are fewer opportunities for people with special needs, and it is important to me that this changes – that people with special needs have just as many opportunities," she concludes. "I love to teach because I love to come up with these opportunities and hopefully create opportunities for my students once they leave school. I wanted to become a teacher because I fell in love with students with special needs. And they teach me more in a day than I can teach them in a lifetime."
Tapp Middle School
"Now is the time to make an investment in the person you want to become."
Alexander Shannon considered himself an unlikely candidate for a job in teaching. He initially wanted to work in law enforcement and, upon graduating from Mississippi State University, accepted a position as a juvenile probation officer assisting with closing probation cases. His job brought him to many schools to speak with probationers, and one day he had a realization. "Most of the students I was interacting with were young men of color who were doing poorly in school," he relates. "I began to wonder why so many of these young men found themselves in trouble in and out of school – and what I could do to help curb this problem." After much soul searching and counsel from his pastor and a fellow church member, he decided to go into education and was hired as a middle school special education teacher. "This began my unlikely tenure as an educator some 17 years ago," says Shannon, who has worked at Tapp Middle School for the last eight years and currently teaches sixth grade science.
"My reason for choosing this profession has not changed. I'm still very passionate about young people realizing that they have endless potential and possibilities if they are willing to work hard," Shannon notes. In the classroom, he often tells his students, "Now is the time to make an investment in the person you want to become." But he also wants them to know that he is making an investment in them as well. "The essence of this profession lies in one's ability to see the endless possibilities within each student. And not only seeing the possibilities, but also motivating, challenging and inspiring students to take an introspective look at themselves."
Just when he needed confirmation that his approach truly makes a difference, Shannon received an email from a former student. She had been trying to locate him and wanted to inform him that she was attending college and studying to earn a degree in education. "She wanted me to know that I made a positive impact on her life, and she wanted to say thank you," he says. "Needless to say, I was more than appreciative to have gotten this email. The daily work of educating young people will never be in vain when you are working in your God-given purpose."
Sope Creek Elementary School
"My teaching philosophy: teach with passion and humor, create problem solvers and encourage a sense of morality and respect for others."
The students in Christiane Wyckoff's fifth grade class at Sope Creek Elementary School get paid to be there. Well, they get paid in Wyckoff WildCat dollars, which they use to rent their desks, computers and cubbies, pay for taxes and insurance and make charitable contributions. "We have a mini-economy, which means that every student has a class job that they apply for and are hired for the whole year," says the 13-year teaching veteran. "And at the end of every semester, a group of students researches a few charitable organizations, and they vote on where to give their real, hard-earned-at-home dollars." In the last few years, Wyckoff's class has donated to Project MailCall (which sends care packages to military men and women overseas), the Children's Miracle Network, Children's Hospital at Scottish Rite, the World Wildlife Fund and Toys for Tots. She explains, "Beyond the curriculum, I like to think that I teach my children to be wonderful human beings who are organized, enthusiastic learners, and compassionate and caring toward others."
Wyckoff's lessons, as well as her penchant for wearing fun hats and playing Enya music during tests, have made students remember her long after they leave her classroom. And that's what she wants, especially since fifth grade is the last year of elementary school, as well as the last one in which students have one teacher for all subjects. Wyckoff wants to make the most of that precious year. "I am a farmer. I sow seeds into young minds that will grow in a variety of different ways – many of which I will never actually witness in full bloom," she notes. "There are three main tenets to my teaching philosophy: teach with passion and humor, create problem solvers who will become good contributing members of society and encourage a sense of morality and respect for others, our community and our country."
With such a deep-seated love of teaching and a truly effective instructional approach (as well as a degree in elementary education from Skidmore College), it's almost hard to believe that Wyckoff was a stockbroker for 16 years before becoming an educator. However, after leaving the brokerage industry to spend more time with her three children and being asked to be a supply teacher in the Target program at Sope Creek, she was hooked. And she's been an educator ever since. "My favorite quote is from Ghandi: 'Be the change you wish to see in the world,'" she concludes. "And I strive to live up to it every day."
Birmingham Falls Elementary School
"Our future is in delightful hands."
For years, Donna McDonald worked in a variety of industries, from retail to consulting, and every job focused on training and teaching adults. "Adults learn just like young people, and now I get to work with young people," says McDonald, who joined Birmingham Falls Elementary in August 2013 as a fourth grade teacher. This year, she moved into teaching fifth grade math and science. And regardless of what – or whom – she is teaching, her approach remains the same.
"I am truly dedicated to my classroom, and my students come first," McDonald says. It's a straightforward philosophy that has given this enthusiastic educator unparalleled joy and a deep sense of gratitude, as well as great hope for the future. "The rewards that come daily from the excitement on a student's face when they grasp a difficult concept [are the most memorable to me]," she continues. "I will never forget the incredible talents that our young people share. I have gotten chills from the stories they have written, the skits they perform and the talents and gifts I see exhibited during extracurricular activities that I feel privileged to be invited to see. Our future is in delightful hands."