By MARINA WATERS
On Friday night, the Washington County Department of Education took a moment to honor the folks who play a key role in the school district — the teachers of Washington County.
It was all about county educators at the WCDE Teacher of the Year event, which was held at Grace Meadow Farms in Jonesborough for the second annual awards banquet.
One teacher from each Washington County School, and from each grade, was determined by a vote from the schools’ teachers.
Fall Branch Elementary’s Kristie Payne, Jonesborough Middle School’s Rebekah Bradley and David Crockett High School’s Sharon Clark were given the highest honors of the night as the three system-level teachers of the year while 19 other Washington County teachers were also recognized as building-level teachers of the year.
But the event wasn’t just about handing out a glass apple award to each recipient; for those in attendance, including the county officials who joined in to honor county educators, the event was created to honor those who work directly with what Washington County Board of Education Chairman Jack Leonard considers the county’s most prized possession.
“When I taught Geography, we talked a lot about oil and minerals and how valuable they were,” Leonard said. “But you can’t put a value on a child. They’re the most important thing that we have — and to guide and to grow and to teach.”
“We just thank you so much for your service, for what you do for us, the county and for what you do for our children. I personally, and in representing the board, want to thank you so much.”
Meanwhile, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge reminded the crowd that Washington County was ranked first among the other eight county school systems in Northeast Tennessee in areas such as average ACT composite scores and TNReady English and Language Arts and math scores, a reflection of the work of county educators.
But the mayor didn’t just provide statistics and the event space at his own farm; he also explained why he says he is so passionate about education in Washington County.
“Do you know why I’m so passionate about education? Because education will determine the future prosperity of this region,” Eldridge said. “I expect that you all already knew this, but you’re shaping our future.
“My kids are grown. They’re not in school now, but I’ve got a grandchild,” Eldridge said. “She’s eight months old. That’s what I’m thinking about now. In 20 years from now, my granddaughter is going to be grown. The foundation she is going to have is going to be the result of what she gets in the Washington County School System. So I’m passionate about making it better. And I’m thankful to you for being just as passionate if not more so.”
For one school board member, Clarence Mabe, who is also a former coach and teacher, he said his perspective on teaching and the school system hadn’t changed much, but that his appreciation has only kept growing.
“In 1965, I got a job at Fall Branch. I was a physical education teacher and a coach,” Mabe said. “I thought that I was the luckiest person in the world. I thought I was working with the greatest people in the world. I’m 72 years old and I haven’t changed my mind. I’m still the luckiest man in the world.”
“Some of you light flames of interest in their young minds that will carry them forward to be successful adults. Some of you were their mental therapists helping them through these times in their lives. Some of you simply showed them that you truly care about the welfare and offer them encouragement. You have chosen the mother of all professions and we’re so glad you selected Washington County in which you practice your trait.”
But before each honoree took the stage to accept his or her award at the event’s closing, Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton shared her thoughts on what comes to mind when one considers the work of a teacher.
“I think about the many times that each and every one of you have done your fair share of bus duty when its’ storming, it’s thundering and the rain is pouring down, or it’s frigid cold outside. I think about the times that someone forgot their field trip money or they forgot their field trip permission form,” Halliburton said. “I think about those little girls and those little boys and those big boys and those big girls that feel embarrassed in class because they just don’t know what the others know, but they know they don’t know. For them, it’s difficult. And I think about the safe haven that you create for students like that every day.”
And that work, she said, offers light in a world that can be a little tougher on some kids today.
“You are many of our children’s best hope,” Halliburton said. “We have so many kids who go home to loving families that we forget to talk about that. They’re nurtured and they’re cared for. But for those kids who don’t have that, you’re their advocate. You’re the person that wipes the snotty nose. You’re the ones that tolerate those disrespectful high school students because you know where that’s coming from. There’s really just not enough words for me to say thank you to a teacher.
“But we want you to know that in this community, you are loved and you are adored and you are cherished for the work that you do every day.”