Outstanding teachers from across the Shelby County School District were honored Monday, December, 9 at the annual Teacher of the Year awards ceremony. The event was held at Oak Mountain High School and was hosted by the Shelby County Schools Education Foundation. The top three Teacher of the Year winners from the elementary, middle and high school grade spans were honored, along with Teacher of the Year winners from every school in the district.
The overall Teacher of the Year award winners were Amy Knight from Helena High School, Anna McEntire from Helena Middle School, and Martha Bentley from Elvin Hill Elementary School.
Martha Bentley has been teaching for 23 years, all of which have been spent at Elvin Hill Elementary. Currently, she teaches gifted education for grades 3-5. She serves in numerous leadership roles at her school and with the school district, including the Leader In Me Lighthouse Faculty Team Coordinator, sponsor of Student Lighthouse Team, sponsor of Pride Patrol Team (student-led hall safety team), coordinator of Clubs Days, Technology Committee, Library Committee, WCAT Morning News Sponsor, and facilitator of the Science Festival Team.
Bentley believes that all children are born scientists who come into the world wondering, questioning, experimenting, and constantly revising their understandings. They are designed to be ACTIVE and her goal as a teacher is to minimize the time students are expected to sit and listen to her. Instead, she feels meaningful learning takes place when children construct their own knowledge as they experiment and reflect.
She recently had the opportunity to witness that type of learning firsthand as her gifted students worked on identifying various types of triangles as part of a unit on engineering. She created a giant 3 x 3 grid where she then asked the students to label the triangles in the header columns as equilateral, isosceles, and scalene. In the rows of the grid, the students had to determine whether the triangles were acute, right, or obtuse.
“Students were asked to place each triangle in the correct cell of the floor chart,” she said. “Much pondering and peer-collaboration ensued as students attempted to distinguish one category from another.”
“The interesting thing about this lesson is that geometric concepts previously taught to these bright students were not retained, but being allowed to ‘discover’ these truths in an interactive, participatory manner stimulated their thinking in a much more engaging way,” Bentley added.
One of the ways Bentley’s students connect to the world is through a process called 20% Time. Each student chooses a real-world topic that is of great personal interest to him or her. Students then wrestle with the task of formulating a driving question that will guide meaningful research.
“Each week, students spend a portion of their time researching their topic,” Bentley said. “With a bit of research under their belts, students are ready to consider the big ‘so what?’ of the process. How will their new expertise make a difference to someone in the real world? Many students decide to provide a good, service, or presentation to benefit a specific audience.”
Bentley’s students have undertaken many projects as a result of the research, including local food bank drives to address the problem of world hunger and a shoe collection drive which benefitted impoverished people in Kenya.
“I am not an expert in any of these fields. Providing scaffolding and overseeing progress for so many diverse learning tasks is a challenge that sometimes leaves me spinning,” Bentley said. “Why do I do it? Because a child discovers a talent she didn’t know she had. Because a boy who has experienced financial worry wants to make sure children do not go hungry. Because a shy girl finds the courage to speak up on behalf of those in need. Because our world needs kids like these.”
Anna McEntire has taught for eight years and presently serves as the 7th- grade Life Sciences teacher at Helena Middle School. She is also the head coach of the school’s dance team and is a Level 1 Google Certified Educator. She is currently participating in the district’s teacher leadership program, Teachers Growing Teachers.
McEntire said one thing she strives to do every day in her class is to make science personal to the students’ lives.
“We share stories and have discussions, and the kids feel safe asking deep questions and will participate with respect for each other’s voices,” she said. “This is a culture I set in place at the beginning of the year and it will never waiver – it is one of my non-negotiables.”
McEntire said as a life science educator, connecting the content to the kids’ lives is a part of the daily process. She always makes sure that every new concept or process the students are learning about is connected in some way to their life and experiences.
“Science is a study ABOUT the world around them, so ensuring the kids feel connected to that world is of the utmost importance,” she said.
For example, McEntire said she remembers when studying mitosis and meiosis in school, she had to memorize where the chromosomes lined up and the order of the different phases. However, she could never remember “why” that was important. She noted that middle-schoolers are not interested, nor will they remember something if it isn’t relevant to them right now.
“Understanding the whole purpose is the hook that gets students engaged,” she noted. “I ensure that my kids know that because of mitosis we are able to heal from cuts and scrapes and broken bones, and we are also a lot taller than when we were at age three. Also, because of meiosis, we would not be here, for it creates genetically unique gamete cells. And because of that diversity, we are completely different from our siblings even though siblings derive from the same parents! Creating this connection from a very microscopic, cellular process to why it occurs on a larger scale allows the student to have a deeper understanding because now it’s personal.”
While serving at her previous school in Florida, McEntire noticed there was a problem with girl-to-girl bullying. Seeking a solution to the problem, she started a group meeting called “Top Knot Tuesday” where girls would come to her classroom to fix each other’s hair into the popular top knot bun hairstyle. But, they would also discuss different strategies that could be used throughout the school to promote positivity, acceptance, and unity among the 8th-grade girls’ class.
“On that day, throughout the whole school all of the 8th-grade girls had something in common: they were unified. Even if it was a simple hairstyle, the girls felt a part of something that was bigger than themselves and their current drama that otherwise seemed all-encompassing,” she said.
McEntire hopes to start a similar group at Helena Middle with the goal of empowering the girls, encouraging leadership, and equipping them with the tools needed to appropriately handle situations that are hurtful.
“We want our girls more than anything to know how awesome they are and how their gifts matter to the success of the school,” she said. “I am anticipating the results!”
Amy Knight has been teaching anatomy and physiology for the past five years at Helena High School. Her involvement in school activities includes being the sponsor of the Student Government Association, Student Leadership Team, and Chick-Fil-A Leader Academy. She also serves as a mentor teacher and is a participant in the Teachers Growing Teachers program and the Technology Academy. She plans and organizes all homecoming activities, school-wide service projects, and school elections.
Knight said when she first started teaching, her goal was to make science come alive, especially for students who are intimidated by the subject. She also wanted to focus on students who seem to be on the fringes – the ones who do not ask questions because they are too embarrassed to know what to ask.
“I know that student all too well because that is my own daughter,” Knight shared. “I appreciate the teacher that invests in my daughter and helps her with her struggles. Therefore, I knew I wanted to be the teacher that notices and recognizes every student’s personality type in my classroom, especially those on the fringe.
“I wanted to help them become engaged in the lesson and ultimately grasp the information without any risk of embarrassment.” she continued. ” I learned quickly that comes with an investment in relationships and an engaging lesson.”
Knight said dissection lessons provide that opportunity for interactive and engaging learning to take place in her classroom because they help bring everything the students have learned from the unit to life.
“My favorite dissection lesson during the year is the dissection of the pig heart,” she said. “Students are amazed the first time they actually get to hold the heart. As they start studying the specimen their perspective and understanding begins to change. They become determined to see what they can discover and learn.”
Knight said the majority of her students are interested in future careers in the medical profession, but they don’t always have a clear direction of what exactly they want to pursue. Building strong relationships and getting to know every student helps her to encourage them and equip them for success.
“I always try to remember that I can influence students to be changed not only in learning material but also in life. It is beyond just teaching information,” Knight said. “Teaching Anatomy and Physiology has given me many opportunities to connect my students to the world around them. I am able to bring in real-life examples and draw connections to the real world.”
“There are multiple ways that I constantly point my students to the outside world,” she continued. “In each unit, we discuss the medical field and career paths they can take in that particular area.”
As the Student Government Association sponsor, one part of Knight’s job that she loves is the opportunity to invest in the culture of the still relatively new Helena High School- especially in helping the school discover its identity and establish traditions and school pride.
” One tradition that all schools hold with great pride is Homecoming,” Knight said. “Over the past four years, we have created some amazing traditions that our students look forward to every year. We also add new activities each year based on feedback from the student body.”
“One new tradition that we implemented last year was the homecoming parade,” she continued. “We held it during school hours and the students loved it. However, we wanted to make it more of a community event and so this year we moved it to the evening and invited the community. In addition, we started a community pep rally. We were not sure how it would be received. However, we were absolutely stunned at how the community supported the events. The Helena community lined the streets, picnicked with their families, and children were out cheering for their future alma mater.”