By Terry Rogers
Recently, the six schools in Milford School District announced their nominees for Teacher of the Year. The six nominees will compete for the title of District Teacher of the Year which will be announced on May 6, 2016. Benjamin Banneker nominee, Cary Knight, and Evelyn I. Morris nominee, Elizabeth Fields, are extremely proud to have been chosen as the nominee for their respective schools.
Cary Knight, the RTI Coordinator at Banneker, has been teaching for 14 years and almost her entire career has been working with students who struggle academically or who are English Language Learners. These are students who may have come to the United States speaking little or no English or those who are born here and speak English orally, but struggle academically.
“I have a feeling most teachers will tell you that they always wanted to be a teacher, dreamed about being a teacher, played teacher as a child with their neighborhood friends, but not me,” Ms. Knight said. “I never wanted to be a teacher growing up. I actually wanted to be Joan London. I wanted to be a news anchor or at least write for the news. I made up fake news stories and made my mom read them. This was before cell phones and YouTube or else I am sure that I would have lots of practice on camera being a ‘fake’ news anchor.”
Ms. Knight said that while she was in college, she worked for a company that asked for volunteers to be mentors in elementary schools. She said she signed up because it sounded fun, never expecting it to change her life. During the project, Ms. Knight met a young student who helped her far more than she helped him. She said that he opened her eyes to the struggle that many students face each day, both inside and outside the classroom. She said she was so excited when she got to work with the young man because she felt as if he truly needed her, making her believe that she had something to offer. Eventually, her interaction with the student became the best part of her week and she realized she could have an impact as a teacher. Ms. Knight says that, with that one child, her mind was made up, she changed her major and started looking for jobs within the school system.
“Because I have spent my entire career working with struggling students and with students whose first language is not English, I think my greatest achievement has been helping my students believe in themselves and teaching them that someone else believes in them,” Ms. Knight said. “Learning does not come at the same time for all kids and helping them celebrate their small accomplishments along the way is the most important thing you can do to build their confidence in themselves.”
Ms. Knight admits that working with struggling students can be challenging because it is not a one-size-fits-all model. Working with struggling students means that Ms. Knight cannot just open up curriculum and follow word-by-word for every student she teaches. She must think about where each student is in their learning, where they need to be, and come up with a plan to help get them there. Ms. Knight said that it is often difficult to help students understand this as well.
“They too need to know where they are in their learning, where they need to be and they have to make a plan to get there,” Ms. Knight said. ‘If they don’t know what they are working towards, then the teachers are doing all of the work. Teachers and students have to put forth equal amounts of effort and meet in the middle. The middle is where learning happens. Sometimes, it is difficult to help students realize that they must meet you in the middle to learn, teachers cannot just make it happen for the student all by themselves.”
Ms. Knight said that she hopes that people now realize that education is not about grading papers, putting up bulletin boards or having summers off. She said that teachers work an enormous amount of time outside of the typical student day, not doing clerical things, but making differences that are directly related to helping students grow. She says that anyone considering a teaching career should not do it for money, but because they want to make a difference for children, something she says is the hardest, but most rewarding, part of teaching. Future teachers must realize that teaching is a commitment and that they must always strive to improve. Ms. Knight also says that the extra hours are worth the feeling she gets when students are learning, growing and believing in themselves.
Before coming to Milford, Ms. Knight worked in the 3-Year-Old Early Intervention Program at Caesar Rodney, providing literacy skills and socialization for students who were developmentally delayed. After finishing her degree, she began working for Milford School District. When her children were born, she decided to resign her teaching position and stay home to raise her sons, but didn’t really leave the teaching field. She started her own business, Kidzstuff, that offered a “mommy and me” approach to teach early literacy and math skills as well as work on fine and gross motor skills activities. The program provided socialization for the parents and the children who participated. When her son entered Kindergarten, Ms. Knight decided to return to work. The position for an RTI Coordinator came available and she returned to Milford.
Ms. Knight currently lives in Camden with her husband, Matt, and her two sons, Luke and Blake. Luke, 11, is in his first year of Middle School and Blake, 8, is in third grade and is in his fourth year in the Chinese Immersion Program.
“Ms. Knight’s creativity and ability to take researched-based strategies and make them meaningful and fun for her students is one of her many strengths,” Dr. Bobbie Kilgore, Principal of Banneker said. “She puts in endless hours of her own time to ensure all of her student are successful. Her colleagues consider her a trusted resource. She has a wealth of knowledge about how children learn best and is always willing to help teachers find the best way to meet their needs. In addition to the many ways she helps our students and staff, she also leads the committee that plans all of our family involvement activities. Her dedication to her students, and our school, is invaluable and we are honored having her represent us as Teacher of the Year.”
Elizabeth Fields, who most of her colleagues call Lizzie, is in her sixth year of teaching and her fourth year teaching Kindergarten at Morris. Similar to Ms. Knight, Ms. Fields said that she became a teacher by chance.
“I was not sure what I wanted to major in,” Ms. Fields said. “My mom suggested I take a few basic intro teaching classes. I did and still was not sold on the idea of being a teacher. It was not until I went into the classroom my junior year and taught my first lesson that I became hooked. I loved seeing how excited the student were about learning and the energy within a classroom. I knew after I taught my first mini lesson, which was a landform lesson for a second grade class, that I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do with my life.”
Ms. Fields taught second grade in Spencer, North Carolina, for two years before moving to Delaware, something she said was one of her biggest achievements as she essentially started all over again. She said she moved away from her family to a state where she knew very few people and jumped right into teaching Kindergarten. She said it was difficult at first and she often questioned whether she had made the right decision or if she was even cut out to be a Kindergarten teacher.
“Four years later, I am still here and still learning to teach Kindergarten,” Ms. Fields said. “I think it was, and still is, my greatest achievement because it was such a drastic and scary change. It would have been easy to move back home to North Carolina, but I stayed, and I’ve learned so much. I have found a state to call home.”
One of her biggest challenges is organization, Ms. Fields said. She said she strives to stay organized, always starting the year off that way, but slowly and surely her desk piles up, there are papers everywhere and things don’t get back where they need to go. I feel that I get caught up in teaching and finding creative ways to teach so that she can meet her students’ academic and emotional needs, she often neglects to put things back in her filing cabinet. Too often, filing notes falls to the wayside because she is focused on giving her students what they need to succeed.
“Every student comes into your room with a different story and a different learning style,” Ms. Fields said. “A lot of the skills and concepts we teach; we work on throughout the year. There is always one or two students who still struggle to master concepts after you have presented it in every way possible. Those students are challenging for me because I am not sure how else to present it so they can grasp it. Luckily for me, I am surrounded by many amazing teachers that they can offer another fabulous idea I can try.”
Ms. Fields said that anyone entering the teaching profession should keep the student first. She said it is easy to become bogged down in paperwork and behavior as well as spending hours cutting out laminate or staying up late searching online for ideas and the best way to teach students. She said it is easy for all of it to become overwhelming, but she works to always keep the perspective that her students deserve everything she does, allowing her to love her job.
Originally, Ms. Fields is from Thomasville, North Carolina, attending college at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. She is engaged to her fiancé, Will and, although they have no children, the couple share a cat, Marty.
“Lizzie creates engaging lessons, maintains daily parent contact as needed and works cooperatively with her grade level to plan well past the end of the school day,” said Elizabeth Conaway, Principal at Morris. “She has embraced technology in her classroom and creates lessons that integrate all curriculum areas. She is a true asset to the Morris family.”
The Teacher of the Year Award was established by the Delaware Department of Education in 1965. Schools nominate building educators who then compete for the title of District Teacher of the Year. The winner of that award competes at the state level and, if chosen as the Delaware Techer of the Year, then competes nationally for a national award. Since its inception in 1965, three Milford teachers have been named Delaware Teacher of the Year – Mary Decker in 1973, Penny Shockley in 1988 and Mercedes Ferrari in 1992.
Sign up for you free digital subscription of The Weekly Review, delivered directly to your email every Tuesday morning. A quick cover-to-cover read to catch up on the news of the week and experience great stories about our local communities. Sign up for your free email subscription below.