In a departure from the past, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system this year selected three relatively young teachers as its Teachers of the Year for elementary, middle and high schools.
The teachers have spent six, seven and 14 years in the classroom. In interviews Friday, all said they were surprised their names were announced Wednesday in a ceremony held at the Professional Development Center on North Sherwood Forest Boulevard.
Tonya Bethly is finishing her 14th year as an elementary school teacher, but six of those years were spent teaching in Smryna, Ga. She’s been back in Baton Rouge since fall 2011 and teaches kindergarten at Glen Oaks Park Elementary in Baton Rouge.
“When I found I had won, let’s just say I couldn’t sleep that night,” Bethly said. “I just kept looking at my plaque and saying, ‘It’s real. This is really happening.’ ”
Arianne Frazier, an algebra teacher at Tara High in Baton Rouge who’s finishing her seventh year in the classroom, recalled her mother winning the teacher of the year honor years ago in New Orleans after 15 years in the profession. She said she’s honored that, despite her relatively short time in the profession, she’s been recognized both at the school and at the school system.
“For them to see something in me, it makes me love this profession even more,” Frazier said.
Kristina St. George graduated in May 2007 from LSU and three months later was teaching middle school in Baton Rouge. Now, a sixth-grade world history teacher at McKinley Middle Magnet School, St. George is similarly gratified to earn the recognition of her peers, especially since it took a lot of hard work to get comfortable with her profession.
“My first few years were very difficult just trying to figure out how to reach kids on their level,” St. George said.
The three teachers now will compete against an even more-imposing group of peer teachers at the regional and perhaps the state level.
All three of the teachers tried to teach different ages before settling on the grade levels they are at now.
Bethly had never taught kindergarten before returning to Baton Rouge, but that was the only job open. She remembers seeing those little children walking down the hall, wandering all over the place, and shaking her head.
“Now, I look at the big kids and go, ‘How do (the teachers) do it?’ ” she said. “I can’t do it again.”
To her pleasure, she’s found that kindergartners are capable of quite-advanced work. She said when the Teacher of the Year reviewers came to her classroom, they thought mistakenly she must be teaching gifted kids. She’ll sing children cheerful songs with nuggets of knowledge inside, whether it be about geometry or photosynthesis. She said she has students reading at the level of second-graders.
“They don’t know they can’t do it, unless you tell them they can’t,” Bethly said.
Kindergarten is much more academic than it used to be, though Bethly credits her kindergarten teacher’s stylish shoe collection with planting the seed for her own shoe habit.
“I have Imelda Marcos beat I think,” she joked.
Frazier’s path to high school algebra teacher began with her own algebra teacher.
“She would push me, push me, push me to the limit, until I got it,” Frazier said.
She takes a similar approach with own students at Tara, where she is a faculty member at the school’s Freshman Academy.
The academy has two math classes for the teenagers, about three quarters of whom start the year saying they hate math, she said. One class is a traditional teacher-led math class. Frazier’s is computer-based.
Growing up with computers, today’s students will often work harder for a computer and they respond well to the immediate feedback that a computer gives.
Her job, she said, is to be there to provide help, especially for those students more apt to lose focus.
“It frees me up to work with those kids,” she said.
Unlike Frazier, St. George said, for her students, ancient history is not too hard to generate interest, especially for things such as Egyptian mummies and the Great Wall in China, but there are special challenges.
“They have a hard time grasping how things were in the past,” she said.
For instance, her students are surprised how things like the Internet, things they take for granted, were thousands of years in the future when the pyramids were built.
St. George has taught all three middle school grades, but finds sixth grade is right for her.
“Middle school is challenging, from the age level, the hormones and the body changes,” she said. “But sixth-graders are still really excited about learning.”