The Shelby County School District honored its top teachers at the Teacher of the Year reception and awards ceremony held December 1 at Oak Mountain High School. The event honored the Teacher of the Year winners from every school in the district, as well as the three overall winners from the elementary, middle and high school grade spans. Teachers who recently earned their National Board certification were also honored.
The event was hosted by the Shelby County Schools Education Foundation. Books-A-Million served as a new corporate sponsor, honoring all of the school nominees with a gift bag of items as well as a $25 gift certificate. The three overall winners received a $500 gift certificate from Books-A-Million, along with a $500 stipend award from the Shelby County Schools Education Foundation.
The overall Teacher of the Year winners were Martha Bentley – Elvin Hill Elementary School; Elizabeth Burttram – Helena Middle School; and Amanda Bittinger – Oak Mountain High School.
Bentley has been teaching in Shelby County for 19 years and currently serves as the Gifted Education teacher for grades 3-5 at Elvin Hill Elementary School. She serves in numerous leadership roles at her school, including the Leader in Me Lighthouse team, technology committee, library committee, WCAT morning news sponsor, and Science Festival team facilitator. Her previous honors include the First Year Teacher of the Year Award for 1997-1998.
In her nomination essay to the Teacher of the Year Awards Committee, Bentley said her parents were the biggest influence on her becoming a teacher. Bentley wrote her father, a Southern Baptist preacher, taught her to think critically and analytically, to evaluate the substance and validity of text, and to view her contributions as part of a cause bigger than herself. Her mother taught her through words and example to accept and love people for who they are.
“She modeled for me patience, encouragement, gentleness, forgiveness, and self-control, all vital components of an outstanding classroom teacher,” Bentley said. “These two human beings were the twin pillars of my life experience, daily displaying for me the gifts and traits of the teacher I aspire to be.”
“When asked to consider what my greatest contributions in education might be, I do not think of awards or accolades,” she continued. “I think of my students, and I pray that I might be influencing, motivating, and challenging them in the way my parents did me.”
She said she considers her greatest contribution to be the one she attempts to make every day, to be the one adult in each child’s life whose words, attitudes and actions consistently convey the message, “I care about you. I believe in you. I will do everything I can to help you succeed.”
Bentley said she believes bullying is one issue that continues to impact schools across the country. And while, she doesn’t have the answers as to why bullying continues to be such an issue, she does have a new sense of hope as a result of her school going through the process to become a Leader in Me school, which is based on Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Teachers at Elvin Hill are not only teaching the seven habits to the students but also modeling them every day.
“We want our students to experience ownership of their life choices, to have a greater voice in the school environment, and to be able to use their strengths and talents right now to better the lives of others,” Bentley said. “We want to enable each child who walks through our halls to establish the habits and traits of true leadership. This means each of us must model the habits in the nitty-gritty of everyday reality.”
Bentley said as a gifted education teacher, she recognizes the importance of students actively participating in their own learning process. She models for them how much fun it can be to explore and learn new things every day.
“I try to remind myself that children are born scientists – they come into this world wondering, questioning, experimenting, and constantly revising their understanding of incoming data,” she said.
Bentley said the rewards that she experiences as a teacher are too numerous to name, but one reward is that she gets to “learn and grown right along with my students. I always learn as much from them as they learn from me.”
She said if she had a trophy case, it would not contain golden statues, plaques or medals. “Rather it would showcase all of the little notes, drawings, emails, and letters I have received from students who just wanted me to know that I have made a difference in their lives…that they are thankful that I have shared a part of their journey. I believe they will never know how thankful I am that they have been part of mine.”
Burttram has taught 8th-grade science for eight years in the Shelby County School District. She taught for five years at Columbiana Middle School and for the past three years at Helena Middle School. Her leadership involvement at her school consists of serving on Continuous School Improvement team, serving as the Science Department chair, and the Science Olympiad coach. Previous awards include being Teacher of the Year at Columbiana Middle School in 2012.
Burttram said teaching has always been a part of her life, even when she was working in various medical laboratory jobs during previous careers. She views teaching middle school as simply an extension of her laboratory career and even on the most challenging of days she knows she is where she is supposed to be.
“My greatest contributions can be divided into two categories: my work with students and my work with fellow teachers,” she said. “Both have been very rewarding and have enriched me as a person and a professional.”
Burttram said awards won by herself and her students have been wonderful accomplishments; but she views her greatest accomplishments as the small, quiet victories that occur in the classroom.
“One moment I will always remember is a student who was so terrified of public speaking she had never once spoken in front of a classroom,” Burttram recalled. “She managed to get up and present her project on Niels Bohr in front of the classroom. My paraprofessional and I were near tears at the risk she took and the cheers from her classmates. A truly golden moment!”
Burttram also finds great reward in helping to mentor other teachers and loves to see them be successful in their own classrooms. She is worried, however, that one of the biggest threats to education is the decline in the number of college students wanting to become teachers. With so many teachers retiring and younger teachers who are experiencing burnout or who leave for more lucrative careers, there is a real threat of a major teacher shortage in the next several years.
Burttram said negativity toward education, student debt versus low teacher pay, the stress and demands of the teaching profession, and discouragement from family members about entering the profession are all to blame for the lack of new college students. She proposes that the issue could be addressed through student loan forgiveness programs, job shadowing programs, veteran teachers serving as college recruitment ambassadors, and an active Social Media campaign to promote teaching as a career.
She said putting her belief about teaching into practice is what makes her an outstanding teacher. That includes the belief that all students can learn and have something positive to contribute, especially if they take ownership of their own learning.”
“The rewards I get from teaching are numerous and cannot be measured really,” Burttram added. “I keep a file of letters from grateful students, save emails from students who are now in college, and when I need a reminder of the importance of what I do, I read one. My reward is getting to see these amazing young people grow and do the great things they are destined to do.”
Amanda Bittinger has been teaching for 19 years, including the past 13 years in the Shelby County School District at Oak Mountain High School. She teaches honors precalculus and AP calculus AB and BC for 11th and 12th grade. Her leadership contributions to her school include serving as the Advanced Mathematics Team coach, Mentor Program coordinator, School Improvement Team member, and Precalculus and Calculus Learning Team lead teacher.
Previous honors include Walmart Teacher of the Year (2007); ABC 33/40 and Food World Teacher of the Year (2007); Oak Mountain Teacher of the Year (2005); Chilton County Teacher of the Year (2000); Maplesville High School Yearbook Dedication (2000 and 2002). She was also one of three Alabama teachers selected to become a member of the Math and Science Teacher Organization at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and to attend their week-long engineering and technology conference in June 2004.
“The single most important factor that influenced me to become a teacher was my high school mathematics teacher, Mr. Ned Lowery,” Bittinger said. “I really hated math and never understood the true meaning behind many of the concepts until Mr. Lowery took the time to get me interested in math and gave me the confidence that I needed to be successful at it.”
Bittinger said Lowery is to be credited for not only instilling in her a love of math and teaching but also encouraging her to go to college.
“I was from a poor, rural family who just wanted me to graduate high school, but Mr. Lowery showed me that I could do better than just graduate high school,” she said. “He showed me that I could compete with anyone in my class, and he gave me the confidence and skills necessary to compete with almost anyone in college. I not only owe my teaching ability and passion for mathematics to Mr. Lowery, I owe the life that I lead to him. I think God that Mr. Lowery cared enough about me and all of his students to spend the extra time that he did to ensure that we not only learned a lot about mathematics but that we developed as strong individuals as well.
She now strives to be the same type of influence and role model for her own students and to her fellow colleagues. She said her classroom is often filled with students who not only come from extra help with math but also seeking a listening ear to share their problems with.
“I have found that when a student knows that you truly care about them as a person, he/she will go above and beyond what you ask of them in the classroom,” she shared. “I attend many of the school events and activities in which my students participate, and at Christmas, I write each student an individual card with a paragraph that is just for them. This paragraph will contain information that I have learned about them during the year.”
Bittinger agrees that a shortage of quality teachers and others leaving the profession too soon is one major challenge facing education today. Having taught in rural, urban and inner city schools, she also believes inequity in education is also a huge area of concern since the same educational opportunities are not available to all students.
She said she believes that teaching is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling careers that anyone can ever have.
“I also believe that students should be treated with care, patience and respect,” she said. “I do not treat my students as just people who enter my class on a day-to-day basis to receive math knowledge. At the beginning of the year, I make a point to know my students’ names and something unique about them by the second day of class.”
“I hope that can be remembered in the minds of my students as someone who made them realize the value of hard work and resilience and someone who truly cared about them,” Bittinger continued. “My goal every day is to make each and every one of my students’ lives better, to fill their minds with knowledge of mathematics, with the love for learning, with the confidence to succeed in every aspect of their lives, with the determination to never give up on their dreams, with the importance of respect for those around them, and with the understanding of the importance of showing kindness and sincerity toward everyone they meet.”
Additional School Winners:
Elementary: Calera Elementary – Kathryn Glass; Calera Intermediate – Tyler Rollin; Chelsea Park Elementary – Amy Gerdes Floyd; Forest Oaks Elementary – Tyler Anderson; Helena Elementary – Shannon Moseley; Helena Intermediate – Amanda Miller; Inverness Elementary – Joan Ray; Linda Nolen Learning Center – Kim Lolley; Montevallo Elementary – Tonya Littlejohn; Mt Laurel Elementary – Katherine Thompson; Oak Mountain Elementary – Amanda Johnson; Oak Mountain Intermediate – Jenny Elizabeth Wood; Shelby Elementary – Kristal Lawrence; Vincent Elementary – Marlee Clifton; and Wilsonville Elementary – Allison Studdard.
High: Calera High – Alice LaGrone; Chelsea High – Heather Taylor; Helena High – Lisa Essman; Montevallo High – Jordan Pritchett; Shelby County College and Career Center – Jerry Goggins; Shelby County High – Dustin Clecker and Vincent High – Mary Marbut.