Four Cherokee County School District teachers learned Wednesday they are finalists for the system’s Teacher of the Year award.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower visited their classrooms to make the surprise announcement that they are the top four teachers of all the system’s Teachers of the Year.

The finalists are: Cherokee High School theater teacher Dr. Jodi Burn, E.T. Booth Middle School sixth-grade social studies teacher Cathy Fernandez, Indian Knoll Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Chelsea Leming and Boston Elementary School fourth-grade Digital Learning teacher Brenna Lloyd.

“We appreciate every one of our outstanding teachers, who all have worked harder over the past year than ever before, and these four are the best of our best” Dr. Hightower said. “Each of our finalists shows extraordinary dedication to their profession, their colleagues and, most importantly, to each child in their care. Congratulations and thank you for all that you do!”

The system’s Teacher of the Year will be announced during the Legacy Makers celebration this spring. The system winner will represent the district in the Georgia Teacher of the Year competition. The Legacy Makers banquet, and the prizes to be awarded to all of the honorees, are made possible by presenting sponsors: Cherokee County Educational Foundation, Credit Union of Georgia, Northside Hospital Cherokee and Shottenkirk Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram of Canton.

The four finalists – two selected from all elementary school-level winners and two from all middle, high and centers honorees – were chosen by a committee of retired educators and community leaders. Their selection was based on essay answers to questions about their careers and their views on teaching and education, and letters of recommendation from Principals, colleagues, students and parents.

Cherokee High School theater teacher Dr. Jodi Burn

Theatre teacher Dr. Jodi Burn teaches drama exceptionally well, but that is not her greatest talent, according to colleagues and students’ parents.

The Cherokee High School Teacher of the Year’s greatest talent is recognizing the star power in every student and developing ways for them to shine – whether onstage, backstage or offstage.

“Jodi is one of those teachers that draws the students in, making them want to be better,” one parent shared. “Better students, better friends – more importantly, better people.”

A 24-year educator, Dr. Burn took on her current role seven years ago and has grown the program’s participation and activities, expanded its community service, and adopted new ideas to better serve students. The program’s annual holiday play that stars students from the school’s Special Education program is renowned and inspiring to all involved, with many drama students seeking careers as Special Education teachers due to the experience working with their special “stage buddy.”

Dr. Burn, who while running the drama program also earned her doctorate and became a foster parent with her husband, measures the program’s successes by more than applause and awards.

“My greatest accomplishment in teaching is not what happens in the classroom or on the stage, but the relationships I foster with and among my students,” she said. “Our theatre program is a family, and I consistently remind my students that the program can only grow and get better with the peer-to-peer support and encouragement … and they want to be a part of the family they have created together.”

E.T. Booth Middle School sixth-grade social studies teacher Cathy Fernandez

Social studies expands to much more than history in the lesson plans of teacher Cathy Fernandez.

The E.T. Booth Middle School Teacher of the Year dedicates herself to ensuring her students see real-world applications of their lessons and learn life skills.

One innovative way the 14-year educator accomplishes this is through integrating STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts gained by volunteering two years ago to serve as one of the school’s Discovery Education cohort members. The eight-teacher team works with Discovery Education experts to develop ways to increase STEM instruction at the school and further develop a STEM learning culture schoolwide.

“While her subject area of social studies is not one that immediately comes to mind when thinking about STEM, Ms. Fernandez has shown time and time again the cross-curricular alignment that all content areas have in STEM education,” Principal Todd Sharrock said.

As a result of her STEM learning, Ms. Fernandez has transformed her classroom into a “learning lab” with student-centered lessons that incorporate skills they will need for future success. One example is the “For the Record” podcast project beginning this spring funded by a grant and planned in collaboration with the school’s media center. Through the project, her social studies students will conduct research and interviews and then use their technology skills to create podcasts about how their classroom lessons connect to their lives and their community.

“I don’t want my students to rely on rote memorization, but rather to know what happened in the past, why it happened, how it connected with other events, how the events relate to their personal lives, and accomplish all of those things using 21st-Century skills,” she said.

Indian Knoll Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Chelsea Leming

Former students of fifth-grade teacher Chelsea Leming describe her as the “amazing teacher you will never forget.”

The Indian Knoll Elementary School Teacher of the Year sees her students the same way – as amazing young people who can change her life for the better.

She remembers standing on the shores of Tybee Island with a student during a class field trip. It was a moment that “forever changed her teaching.”

“Wow,” one student said. “I’ve never seen this before.”

“Never seen what?” Ms. Leming asked.

“The ocean.”

Ms. Leming, who now is in her 12th year as an educator, said it was a deep “aha” moment. “I realized what a privilege it was to share such experiences with young people, and what a responsibility I bore to show my students the world.”

Connecting her students to the world now is a major component of both her social studies and English language arts lessons, showcased not only in the variety of what they read and watch, but also in how they together transform her classroom visually and connect with authors and experts from around the world through technology.

“Sometimes, I wish I could go back to her class, so that she could make everything I am learning now interesting and fun,” said a former student, who now is a 10th-grader. “She is a phenomenal teacher … but what she does best is spark her students’ interests and help them grow into themselves.”

Boston Elementary School fourth-grade Digital Learning teacher Brenna Lloyd

Fourth-grade teacher Brenna Lloyd loves engaging with students in person — morning meetings are a must, as is regularly eating lunch alongside them. She even makes it a priority to visit each student in her class at their home.

The Boston Elementary School Teacher of the Year, like all her fellow educators, had to give up that in-person experience when CCSD families sheltered in place in the spring.

But the 18-year teacher took an “all in” approach to teaching online and her successes led CCSD’s Office of Curriculum & Instruction to ask her to serve on the team of teachers that spent the summer helping to develop the Digital Learning program.

And she took it a step further by volunteering to be a Digital Learning teacher this school year, swapping in-person engagement for the best possible online engagement she could create through her dedication and care. Her successes have led other teachers to call upon Ms. Lloyd to improve their own online teaching.

“She makes me feel smart and important,” a current student shared, with her mother adding that the patience and love Ms. Lloyd pushes through the screen has made all the difference. “I can honestly say this year has been the most successful year for my child in many ways, and I owe it all to Ms. Lloyd.”

Ms. Lloyd sees making these connections, no matter where the classroom exists, as her most important contribution to education. “Strong connections are the key to a successful child … to feel empowered that, regardless of their skill set or their background, they can accomplish whatever is set before them.”

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