The Shelby County Board of Education recently honored Charelette Smith from Oak Mountain Elementary and Blake Lovett from Chelsea Middle as the recipients of the First Year Teacher of the Year award for the 2016-2017 school year.
Smith is a second-grade teacher at Oak Mountain Elementary, while Lovett teaches seventh-grade geography at Chelsea Middle.
Smith became a teacher after 14 years working in the corporate world. She said while reflecting on her first year as a teacher, the greatest surprise was the depth of love she had for the children and the impact it had on her. She said one piece of advice she received during an interview prep course was to not respond to the question “Why do you want to be a teacher?” with the answer “Because I love children.”
“While I heeded the advice, I did ponder why that would not be an appropriate answer,” she wrote in her nomination essay. “Obviously, I love children. In fact, I have two of my own. What I did not realize was the fact that the 24 students in my classroom would also consume my time, my thoughts, my energy, my nights, and my weekends, and voluntarily so.”
Teachers are not driven by financial gain or self-success, Smith now realizes. While working in the business world, she would not have been motivated to work nights or weekends, regardless of how much she admired the people she worked with. But, teaching is different.
“It is the love of my students that drives me to stay after school hours, causes me to spend countless hours on the weekends trying to unwrap standards, drives the determination to figure out what differentiated instruction really looks like and makes me want to be the effective teacher that they deserve!” she said. “My performances are directly linked to the certainty that the love I have for my students produces a self-sacrificing desire to provide them with the most effective learning opportunities. Ultimately, the greatest surprise of my first year teaching is the realization that I obtained 24 more children into my heart and will do everything I can to help them succeed!”
Smith said there is no amount of education and training that can genuinely prepare first-year teachers.
“My advice is to hold on tight and push through relentlessly because the rewards surpass the struggles,” she said. “Do not underestimate the power of your team for support. Model your expectations, and remember that ultimate success comes from believing in yourself. My final piece of “wisdom” is that love will drive you, and experience will teach you.”
Smith’s principal, Debbie Horton said she definitely understands how to meet students where they are academically while closing the gap. “
“In addition to knowing her students as learners, she also builds relationships with them as young girls and boys who are growing in leadership,” said Horton. “The culture in her classroom creates a safe, loving, nurturing environment where students feel at ease to risk without fear of ridicule or failure. She is constantly reinforcing that concept. Creating this type of culture cannot be taught, instead it is something that one already owns and then is able to foster with others.”
“I am one of those people who tries to always be prepared and have the answers,” he said. “I call it confidence, my wife Emily lovingly refers to it as my big head. She was definitely correct this time.”
Lovett said he walked into his classroom at Chelsea Middle last August ready to hit a homerun on his first attempt, but instead he barely got a base hit.
“I knew my content well, I was good with students, but little did I know there is a whole lot more to being a teacher than just simply teaching. As much as college and graduate school prepared me, I still had to build everything from the ground up.”
Lovett said a year later, he has learned a lot, asked his mentor about a half million questions, and thrown out lesson plans that he thought would be great but ended up being a complete wreck.
“Whey they say flexibility is the number rule in teaching they were not joking,” he said. “I may not have been an all-star on my first day of teaching, but with perseverance, a little luck and a whole lot of help from the great teachers around me I was able to finish my first year in one piece and I am proud of what I was able to accomplish.”
Andrew Gunn, who served as Chelsea Middle School principal for Lovett’s first year of teaching, said he approached his position not as a job but as a profession – working from day one to make his classroom a welcoming learning environment.
“Mr. Lovett stands out as a first year teacher not only because of his effort in the classroom but also because of his rapport with students,” said Gunn. He is beloved by his students, not because of his age, but because the passion for his craft is evident and noticed by the 7th-grade students he serves. I have heard from multiple parents that shared their child has come home many days and gone on and on about what Mr. Lovett taught them that day and how much their child admires him.”
Lovett said his advice to new teachers is really not all that different from what he tells his students and expects of himself – there is no substitute for hard work!
“Find ways every day to get better at what you do,” he advises. “Push yourself as an educator because where you are uncomfortable you have an opportunity to grow.”
“Lastly, I would tell new teachers to find opportunities to specifically impact student’s lives,” he added. “There are some students who will be the starting quarterback, homecoming queen or class president and they need teachers who will pour into them. There are also students who could quietly unnoticed every year until graduation if it were up to them. They need great teachers to let them know that they are important, just as much, if not more than the others. Teaching is simple. It may not be easy, but it is simple. Show up every day ready to work hard. Teach students and invest in their lives.”