PROFILE: The power of a moment: Jeff Norris is raising the next generation of American leaders by emphasizing the importance of every moment

Published 2:53 pm Tuesday, March 12, 2024

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Written by Anna Grace Moore

Glancing about his classroom, Jeff Norris’ grin stretches ear-to-ear, as he watches his students scamper to their teams to take the first shot at the word problem on the board. “Ninety-four, no, 93!” a student shouts.

Like dominoes falling in a line, teams begin proudly calling out their answers, hugging each other, bombarded with joy. Morning math problems have become several of his students’ favorite part of the day, as evident by the crimson red and cerulean blue fireworks drawn in Expo markers near their answers.

Jeff smiles, watching teams one-by-one running up to him, cheering, “We did it!” He responds by high-fiving each student, never leaving one out.

“We sure did,” he thinks.


The Journey, Not the Destination

Jeff was always destined to be a teacher. He grew up with an older brother and a younger brother, and they all played baseball.

When he, his brothers and their friends would play, he was always in charge of the games, helping other kids learn to play or find a spot on the team. Looking back, Jeff says he could see the writing on the wall.

There were times in high school that he acted as an elementary school mentor or peer helper. He sees these times as seeds being planted in his life, building the foundation for his educational journey.

Jeff graduated from Walker High School, now called Jasper High School, and attended the University of Alabama, majoring in elementary education. He started out teaching third grade for two years, and beginning his third year teaching, he taught fifth grade.

During his fourth year teaching, he began teaching gifted children. During these years, he received not only his master’s degree in gifted education from the University of South Alabama, but also his master’s degree in educational leadership from the University of Montevallo.

He also received his Ed.S. in teacher leadership from the University of Montevallo, as well as his National Board Certification. As of 2023, he has been teaching 19 years.

“Jeff Norris is just a great teacher,” Lynn Carroll, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction and Deputy Superintendent for Shelby County Schools says. “He’s just one of those people that all of the students wanted to have, and all of the parents wanted their children to be in his classroom.”

After teaching gifted children for several years, Jeff was appointed as the administrative assistant at Montevallo Elementary School. He was there for half a year before becoming an assistant principal at Inverness Elementary School.

He worked at Inverness Elementary School for five years before moving to Helena Elementary School, where he became principal. He was there for almost three years.

When the pandemic hit, Jeff says it offered a chance for his family to pray and focus on their goals. This time reminded him how much he loved one-on-one interactions with his students, so he made the decision to return to the classroom.

“It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because I’ve become more excited about our field of education and more passionate about teacher leadership and quality instruction for kids by being back in the classroom setting,” Jeff says.

When the pandemic ended, Jeff returned to the classroom as a sixth grade gifted English teacher at Oak Mountain Middle School. He actually got to teach his son.

Several of Jeff’s former students from Inverness Elementary School were part of the first classes he got to teach at Oak Mountain Middle School, which he says was a fun, full-circle experience. While he was teaching English language arts at Oak Mountain, Dr. Larry Haynes, who was then the principal, was impressed with Jeff’s teaching style and asked him to consider shifting into teaching math.

Jeff said good teaching is good teaching, and he wanted to serve his students in any way he could. He began teaching math the following year and has loved every minute of it.

“I spend more time teaching kids to believe they can do math than teaching math content,” Jeff says, chuckling. “Math seems scary, but as soon as you get past the stigma that ‘failure is messing up,’ you understand messing up is part of the experience of math and solving your own problems and figuring out your errors and growing from those errors.”

Part of students learning mathematical equations and problem solving, Jeff says, parallels the experience of teachers figuring out how to engage their students, helping them grow into the best versions of themselves. Not every day will be a good one teaching-wise, but the mindset that both students and teachers must adopt is one that reaffirms their purpose–every moment counts.

“I tell my kids giving up is failure, not messing up,” Jeff says. “If I can make math approachable, that is leading to lifelong payoff for them.”

When Jeff transitioned from teaching sixth grade English to math, he says the principles of teaching two very different subjects were not all that different.

“Objectively speaking, there’s definitely more reading and writing in English than there is in math, but what we’re learning about teaching math is that the way to make math stick is through reading and writing and talking,” Jeff says. “It’s been a goal of mine to find ways to pull that into the math classroom because that’s how you find meaning.”

One unique practice Jeff implements in his own classroom is called visibly random grouping. Each day, students will sit in randomly assigned groups of three, beginning each day by collaboratively solving a challenging problem on their respective group’s whiteboard.

There is only one marker per group, so teams must talk out solutions for the problem and record down their work. Jeff says his students are often paired with others different from themselves–so they are constantly learning how to build on each others’ strengths.

“This builds resilience, and that’s important in learning,” Jeff says. “We’re in a society where everything is immediate. Everything happens quickly. That’s not necessarily how learning is. We have to teach kids that struggling is okay.”

Through these exercises, Jeff teaches the difference between being a critic and being a critical friend. Critics exude negativity through empty judgment; whereas, critical friends challenge each other to problem solve and praise one another when solutions are found.

“Not getting an immediate payoff as an answer and messing up a couple of times before you get the answer is a part of the process,” Jeff says. “That’s a life skill, not a math skill.”

The Road to the Top

Each year, the Alabama State Department of Education has school systems nominate an elementary and secondary teacher of the year. Jeff was named Oak Mountain Middle School’s Teacher of the Year, then Shelby County Schools’ Elementary Teacher of the Year last year, but that was just the beginning of his hard-earned recognition.

Jeff was later on chosen as the District Three Elementary Teacher of the Year for the state. Of the 16 winners (eight elementary and eight secondary teacher of the year award recipients), four were chosen to interview for the honor of Alabama State Teacher of the Year.

Jeff was one of the four finalists, who were invited to Montgomery to interview for the honor. He progressed to the top two, being named both the Alabama State Teacher of the Year and the Alabama Elementary Teacher of the Year.

“I never expected to be state teacher of the year,” Jeff says. “I love Shelby County, and I love our schools. To be able to showcase all of the awesome things that are happening is a lot of fun. I feel selfish for being honored for doing something that I love.”

As part of being named Alabama State Teacher of the Year, he is actually not teaching in the classroom this year but is touring schools across the state, leading professional development workshops and working with the Alabama State Department of Education.

“I don’t think you can have a better nominee or winner than Jeff Norris,” Sandy Evers, principal at Oak Mountain Middle School says with confidence. “He is the epitome of what a parent wants in a teacher for their child. Students love his creativity and how he makes learning fun and engaging.”

Jeff has since applied for National Teacher of the Year, and he, along with all of the other state winners, will gather for a week-long orientation workshop, furthering discussions in professional development. In April 2024 at the White House Rose Garden, the National Teacher of the Year Award recipient will be named.

No matter if he wins, Jeff says his number one goal will always be the same—making school a positive place for students to thrive. This goal, he shares, was one instilled in him by so many educators and mentors who made such a strong impact on his life–one of those mentors was his father-in-law, who was the Alabama Elementary Teacher of the Year in 1980.

Jeff says when he and his wife were dating in college, he especially enjoyed spending time with his father-in-law, soaking up knowledge that opened up his eyes to just how influential he, as an elementary education major at the time, could be to young children. Jeff credits him for helping discover his passion for teaching young children.

The Three E’s

During one of his tours as Alabama State Teacher of the Year, Jeff had the privilege to speak at his hometown’s city-wide back to school celebration. At this celebration, he said, “Once a Norris kid, always a Norris kid. I know this because I was a Crump, Scruggs and Moody kid.”

Jeff recognized these three teachers, who all had taught him, honoring them for the impact they made on him. He says he classifies teaching–a life changing business–into little moments because a single moment has the power to change someone’s life.

Coach Lincoln Moody’s “moment,” Jeff says, was created each day when he smiled at Jeff and welcomed him into the classroom. Another one of Jeff’s favorite teachers, Gina Scruggs, made learning quite engaging by approaching lessons as opportunities for fun.

She engaged each student by teaching activities that utilized each student’s learning style, making lessons fun for every child. Last but not least, Gayle Crump, who is now the principal of Jasper High School, had one of the biggest impacts on Jeff.

Jeff jokes that while nearly all of her students were taller than her, Mrs. Crump’s voice–her influence–was far greater than he could have imagined as a student. This influence, he believes, empowered him to fulfill his dream of becoming a teacher.

What Jeff learned from these three educators are what he now calls the three “E’s” of good education–environment, engagement and empowerment.

Jeff starts out each school year by having students write letters to their former teachers. Even as a math teacher, he reminds each of his students of the power of words, and coincidentally, this activity has yielded one of his favorite memories as an educator.

One of Jeff’s students was also a student years prior in a school where Jeff was principal. In his letter, the student detailed how he kept getting in trouble and had to visit “Mr. Norris,” who made a deal with him that if he went three days in a row without getting into trouble, they would do a fun activity together–just the two of them.

“You can tell he loves students, he loves children–everything about education,” Lynn says. “He has the ability to make everyone feel at ease and can talk to anyone and make them feel comfortable. He’s a natural culture builder.”