System’s top teachers recognized

SPECIAL TO THE REPORTER

Shelby County’s finest elementary, middle, and high school teachers were honored at the Teacher of the Year reception at Oak Mountain High School. The Nov. 29 reception was sponsored by the Greater Shelby County Education Foundation.

Teachers from 36 schools were given Teacher of the Year honors, creating a pool of candidates for top awards in three grade-level categories – elementary, middle and high school.

Bringing home top Teacher of the Year honors were Julie Nelson, high school; Jeff Denney, middle school; and Kristi Turner, elementary school.

High School

Julie Nelson has taught for 12 years and currently teaches eleventh and twelfth grade marine biology at Pelham High School.

Nelson’s original career choice was not to be a teacher, but an orthopedic surgeon. When those plans did not work out, she took a job as an assistant in cardiovascular pharmacology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) where she worked for eight years before becoming a high school science teacher.

“I did not choose teaching. It chose me,” she wrote in her Teacher of the Year nomination form. “Looking back, I can see that what I thought was an alternative career – not what I truly wanted to do with my life – was actually the beginning of what has become a calling. Each wall stopping me from what I thought was my chosen path was really a turn in a new direction, eventually leading me to the classroom … where I belonged all along.”

Nelson said she is committed to bringing out the best in each of her students. “Six times a day, five days a week, for forty-five minutes, I expect them to give their best – academically and socially – regardless of diploma type, economic standing, personal ability, or primary language,” she said. “I have high expectations, individualized to account for student abilities and limitations, but high none the less. I tell my students that I am committed to bring out the best in them – to pushing and pulling them as needed until they give their best efforts.”

Middle School

Jeff Denney has taught for 12 years and currently teaches seventh grade mathematics and pre-algebra at Oak Mountain Middle School.

Denney also chose another career path before teaching. A former engineer, Denney wrote that he has never regretted his decision to leave that profession for teaching, despite the change in salary and lifestyle.

“I realized that my need to make a contribution to society would never be fulfilled as an engineer,” he wrote. “I didn’t even really need to search for the job that would. It was as if the whole time I contemplated the reasons for leaving engineering, I was enumerating the reasons why I wanted to become a teacher. I could contribute to society, utilize my analytical skills, apply my artistic appreciation and sense of humor to a worthwhile cause, and build relationships that have meaning and purpose.”

Denny stressed that he believes there are people in every field that go beyond the basic requirements of the job, using their intuition and understanding to give and create meaning to their lives through the work they perform. “This is what teaching means to me,” he said. “It means making sure every kid in my class is spoken to every day. It means staying hours after school to create worksheets so that they will understand what it means to convert fractions, decimals, and percents. It means squirting a kid with my water bottle and pretending it went off by itself. It means dressing up like ‘Fractionman’ and losing five pounds in water-loss from walking around in a five-mil wetsuit in the middle of September. Being a teacher is more than a job. It’s a mission, an obsession even, a way of living that feeds off of human interaction and the thrill of shaping a soul. Teaching, to me, is my art. It is more than what I do. It is who I am.”

Elementary School

Kristi Turner has taught for eight years and currently teaches fifth grade at Oak Mountain Intermediate School.

Unlike Nelson and Denny, who initially chose other career paths, Turner remembers playing “school” with neighborhood friends during her childhood – with herself in the role of primary teacher.

“I was compelled to teach about such things as the types of trees that provided some of the shade we enjoyed, the types of animals that scurried in our yards at night, and the types of flowers that could survive the intense summer heat,” she wrote.

Her work as a teacher didn’t stop at sunset, because her childhood friends had a difficult home life that included parental unemployment, spousal abuse, and finally the death of their father. She felt compelled to help out in anyway that she could, even though she was only nine years old at the time.

“Not only did I consider myself their friend next door, but I was their teacher, assisting them with academic and life skills as well. I helped out by calling each morning to wake them up so they could get to school on time and waited for them in the afternoon with a snack and homework assistance. I loved seeing the light bulbs go off in their heads when I knew that I had awakened something inside … a sense of pride … a sense of commitment … a sense of accomplishment,” Turner wrote. “As I reflect today as an adult on those days with my friends, I realize that I did not necessarily have a ‘calling to teach’ but more importantly a calling to be the ‘awakener’ in the lives of others … instilling a love for learning.”

Her philosophy as a teacher is clearly defined in a quote by Robert Frost – “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”

She said as she stands before young students, she is reminded of how important her words, actions, and ideas are in creating independent learners, responsible young citizens, problem solvers, and deep thinkers.

Teacher of the Year candidates:

Gail Powell, Calera Elementary; Rachel Shoemaker, Chelsea Park Elementary; Tammy Painter, Chelsea Intermediate; Kathy Oliver, Creek View Elementary; Kerri Woods, Elvin Hill Elementary; Alyson Ogles, Helena Elementary; Debra Fulmer, Helena Intermediate; Laura Gober, Inverness Elementary; Laura Calhoun, Linda Nolen Learning Center; Gretchen Zagar, Meadow View Elementary; Danita Miniex, Mt Laurel Elementary; Ann Foster, Montevallo Elementary; Jeanne Averitt, Oak Mountain Elementary; Kelly Stanton, Shelby Elementary; Heather Kirk, Thompson Intermediate; Susan Kohler Morton, Valley Elementary; Kristi Burleson, Valley Intermediate; Sharee Winslett, Vincent Elementary; Judith Lay, Wilsonville Elementary; Lyon Dove, Chelsea Middle; Jason Mayfield, Columbiana Middle; Donna Long, Montevallo Middle; Vickie Grizzel, Riverchase Middle; Debra Walton, Thompson Middle; Chad Davis, Alternative School; Floyd Collins, Calera Middle/High; Nancy Stroup, Chelsea High; Jennifer Turner, Montevallo High; Carl Lett., Oak Mountain High; Larry Tew, School of Technology; Allison McCammon, Shelby County High School; Neely Woodley, Thompson High; and Lt. Col. Larry Moore, Vincent Middle/High