Four Cartersville educators will never forget the year in which their peers voted them Teacher of the Year for their school.
Earlier this month, Kristen Kearney from Cartersville Primary, Emma James from Cartersville Elementary, Sarah Belisle from Cartersville Middle and Tish Terry from Cartersville High were given the title of 2021 Teacher of the Year for their school, but the coronavirus shutdown will keep them in suspense a few more months about which one of them will represent the school district in the state competition.
“The four Teachers of the Year are wonderful examples of the quality staff in our school system,” Assistant Superintendent Ken Clouse said. “They are leaders among leaders, and their selection is well-deserved for the value they bring to their school, to their students, to this community and to the teaching profession. We are fortunate in this system to have such outstanding, dedicated teachers who go above and beyond every day.”
Clouse said the annual luncheon to recognize the winners and name the system TOTY, normally held in May, will be scheduled for “sometime this fall when hopefully we are back to normal operations.”
“We will determine how and when the best time is to announce the system Teacher of the Year,” he said.
Second-grade teacher Kristen Kearney said she was “shocked and very surprised” to be chosen for the honor.
“I work with so many wonderful teachers, and I was nominated with such a fantastic group of teachers that I couldn't believe it was me that had been chosen,” she said. “It is very humbling.”
Kearney, 35, said her husband of 13 years, Richard, came into their bedroom early on the morning of May 7 – “before my alarm went off” – and told her, "There are some people outside here to see you."
“I had no idea who would be at my house needing to see me before 8:00 in the morning so I hopped out of bed, quickly changed out of my PJs and brushed my hair,” she said. “Still half asleep, I walked outside to see my parents, my brother and his family and my principals, Mrs. [Gina] Bishop and Mrs. [Katie] Vaughan. Mrs. Bishop congratulated me and told me that I was Cartersville Primary School's new Teacher of the Year. They had also arranged for a special message to be put in my yard by Card My Yard. I could not have been more surprised by all of this. It was overwhelming – in a good way.”
Kearney, who also received a bouquet of flowers, said being named TOTY is “one of the greatest honors I could receive.”
“This honor represents more than just an addition on a list of accomplishments; this honor represents a striving to work with all of my heart and to the best of my ability to lead, love and teach well so that in some way, I can positively impact those around me,” she said.
“This honor also represents the importance of relationship. I believe the foundation of teaching is love and building relationships. The relationships I have built with students, parents and colleagues over the years have contributed to helping me grow and become the teacher I am today. To be nominated by and chosen by those I work with to represent CPS as Teacher of the Year is the most humbling honor.”
The Cartersville native – who has two children, Noah, 9, a rising fourth-grader at CES, and Evie, 5, a rising kindergartner at CPS – has “proudly” bled purple her entire life, graduating from CHS in the Class of 2002.
She just completed her 14th year in the Cartersville system, teaching fourth grade at CES the first four years then transferring to CPS, where she’s stayed the past 10 years.
Kearney can sum up her career in one sentence: “I love being a teacher.”
“I know it is what the Lord called me to be and what he equips me to do so I will continue to try my best to honor him through my teaching and in my workplace,” she said. “Cartersville City School System is truly the greatest system to work in, and I feel very blessed to work at CPS under the leadership of Mrs. Bishop and Mrs. Vaughan.”
A fourth-grade special education inclusion teacher, Emma James found out she’d been named CES’s TOTY at its Teacher Appreciation Tropical Drive-Thru organized by Principal Melissa Bates and Assistant Principal Becky Bryant the first week of May.
“I was surprised,” the Cartersville native said. “After I returned home from the event and had time to let it sink in, I was overwhelmed and felt very honored. I felt that I was recognized for all that I have worked towards professionally. The research and learning that I have spent hours in, learning to better serve the students, was recognized by my peers and administration. All of the teachers at CES are just as deserving. Teachers are seldom given a pat on the back for the endless hours spent and caring over students.”
Bates lured James, 42, to the teacher appreciation outing by asking her to “help pass out the gifts to the teachers,” James said.
“There was not a thought in my mind that it was anything else,” she said, noting she received a plaque, flowers, a Card My Yard sign and a “drive-by parade by my peers.”
Also on hand to help James celebrate the honor were her parents, Vernon and Becky Ferguson; her in-laws, Gary and Nelda James; all three of her children with husband, Justin – Hayleigh, 24, a Fulton County teacher; Hunter, 21, a business management major at Kennesaw State University; and Hayden, 14, a rising freshman at CHS – and friends Colbi Ballard, Greg Docekal and Tara VanOrder.
“The time they took to be there, and the miles that were driven by some meant the world to me,” she said.
James, who has spent her entire 19-year teaching career at CES, said being selected as TOTY has confirmed for her that she’s on the path that’s meant for her.
“I believe teaching is a calling,” she said. “We pour our hearts and souls into those that we teach. To be recognized by my administration and co-workers has been very humbling. I am currently pursuing my doctoral degree; this honor has reassured me that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.”
The 1996 CHS graduate also said it’s “been an honor teaching in the same school system I attended.”
“The system has grown, of course, but the sense of community and a reputation of being one of the best systems in the state has remained,” she said. “To give you an example of the growth over the years, I attended kindergarten through middle school at what is now CPS.”
Sarah Belisle, a seventh-grade life science teacher, said she was “totally shocked” that she was named CMS’s TOTY for 2021.
“I love our staff, and I am honored to represent them,” she said.
Belisle, 44, found out about her award early on the morning of May 11, when she “noticed something in my front yard.”
“My husband [Bartow Collaborative Executive Director Doug Belisle] also told me that I needed to wear something in which I could be photographed, not my usual online teaching clothes – yoga pants and a T-shirt,” she said. “Then my principal, Mr. Matt Gibson, knocked on my door and congratulated me on being selected Teacher of the Year.”
The Cartersville resident, who also was named TOTY in 2003 at Briarhill Middle School in Texas, said she received a huge Card My Yard display in front of her home, a vase of purple and gold flowers, a Visa gift card and the gift her daughter, rising CMS eighth-grader Grace, is most excited about – the Teacher of the Year parking spot.
Belisle – who also has two sons, Jack, a rising junior at CHS, and Judah, a rising fourth-grader at Mission Road Elementary, with her husband of 18 years – said she “definitely” considers it an honor to be recognized by her peers.
“However, the best professional accomplishment in the teaching field is pouring worth into your students,” she said. “When a child feels they are loved, accepted and cherished, then they will usually have a desire to learn. It is at these moments that you can teach them anything. My added joy is watching them mature and have successful lives. That is my greatest accomplishment.”
A CMS teacher for five years, Belisle also said she is a “Christ follower, and I pray my actions before my students reflect that commitment to him as an example of his character.”
Tish Terry, the English language arts department chairwoman, said she is “deeply honored” to be chosen as CHS’s Teacher of the Year.
“I also find my recognition this year ironic,” she said. “The required shift to digital learning has been an emotional and challenging experience. I have missed my time with my precious students; I have worried about them. I have wrestled with how to meet the individual needs of each one despite our physical separation. To receive this accolade at a time when I had been struggling so much as a teacher was uplifting.”
Terry, 51, who teaches ninth- and 10th-grade literature and composition courses, found out about the award May 14 when all four CHS administrators “showed up at my front door to surprise me with the news.”
“[Principal] Ms. [Shelley] Tierce had coordinated the early-morning house call with my husband, Patrick,” she said, noting her principal presented her with a succulent dish garden. “He had created an alibi for our daughter, Connor, to come up from Atlanta. I loved having them there with me. [Assistant Principal] Mr. [Kenneth] Crenshaw made a video of the home visit so I was also able to share with Nick, my son who lives in Seattle, and my parents as well.”
A resident of Cartersville for 25 years, Terry said her attention is on her students, but being honored by her co-workers is special.
“As a teacher, I focus on my students; therefore, their feedback is what means the most to me,” she said. “Their smiles, notes, letters, hugs and, most importantly, their growth as individuals is what fuels me.
“Nevertheless, my peers' selection of me as Teacher of the Year for CHS definitely serves as an affirmation. I work with a team of phenomenal teachers. Knowing those I hold in esteem, so many of whom serve as my role models, voted for me as Teacher of the Year humbles me. It also compels me to continue to grow as a teacher and to continue to give my best to my students.”
All of Terry’s 16 years as a teacher, “even my student-teaching experience the year prior,” have been at CHS, she said.
“I cannot imagine myself at another school,” she said.