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Looking back at teacher of the year finalists

Where are they now?

Posted: Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Michele Rigsby is in the running to become the first Columbia County educator to win Georgia Teacher of the Year.


The fourth-grade instructor at Bel Air Elementary School, and the school system's Teacher of the Year, is one of 10 state finalists for the honor, which will be announced during a banquet in Atlanta on Friday.

Rigsby took part in an interview and classroom observation by a panel of judges. She also delivered a speech during a March luncheon in Atlanta before a group of judges and other finalists.

"That was an especially great day, because we got to meet all the other finalists," Rigsby said. "We all kind of spent a day together, so now we kind of know one another. We also will know that whoever wins will be a good representative for the state."

Rigsby believes she earned the accolade because of the relationships she forges with her pupils.

"It wouldn't matter how skilled I was or how much I knew about the curriculum if I didn't couple it with getting to know the kids and building a relationship with them," she said. "That is what enables me. I could not teach them if we didn't have a relationship to build on."

Rigsby said she looks forward to having the ear of state Superintendent Kathy Cox.

Each year, state finalists form an advisory board for Cox to offer opinions on curriculum and standards.

"I'm really happy to have that voice for our county," Rigsby said. "I'm not per se a better teacher than anyone else in our county, but I get to go and be the representative for our county, so it'll be great to take their concerns and praises to her."

Rigsby is one in a long line of Teacher of the Year state finalists from Columbia County.

Ellen Lewis, 1988

The first Columbia County teacher to reach that level was Ellen Lewis in 1988.

As a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Grovetown Elementary School, Lewis tapped into the diverse ethnic backgrounds available at the school to regularly conduct World's Fair-like carnivals. Countries represented at the fair offered pupils a glimpse of native clothing and a taste of authentic cuisine.

Lewis, now an assistant principal at Harlem High School, believes it was such hands-on activities that made her a state finalist.

"Not only was I teaching in the classroom but I was involving the rest of the school in what we were doing and reinforcing (the curriculum)," she said.

It would take the school system another decade to produce a Teacher of the Year state finalist.

Lanese Thomas, 1999

Lanese Thomas achieved the distinction in 1999.

Thomas likes to jokingly brag that it took the country's best teacher to beat her.

She was a finalist the year that Richmond County teacher Andy Baumgartner won the state title and later was named National Teacher of the Year. Baumgartner taught in Columbia County before retiring.

"I didn't just lose to the Georgia guys; I lost to the national one," she said.

In 1999, Thomas was a third-grade teacher at Martinez Elementary School. She also taught second and third grades at Westmont and Riverside elementary schools.

During her career, Thomas was heavily involved in shaping elementary science education throughout the state. She conducted numerous workshops and helped formulate an elementary-level science curriculum focused on hands-on experiments.

A bout with cancer forced her to resign last June after 24 years in the classroom.

Starting with Thomas, Columbia County has produced six state finalists in 10 years.

Joyce Cheek, 2001

The next finalist was Joyce Cheek in 2001.

At the time Cheek was named county Teacher of the Year, she was a math instructor at Harlem High School.

Cheek's career spanned nine years at Harlem High, more than 20 years in the Jefferson County school system and three years at Emmanuel College in north Georgia. She now runs C Educational Consulting with her husband, Mark, who was a math and science consultant for the Regional Educational Service Agency.

While teaching, the McDuffie County resident often used such atypical techniques as having her students write songs or poems about math concepts.

"I liked students to be actively involved in their learning, including showing me their mastery in multiple ways, like poetry and song," she said.

Brian Campbell, 2002

The next year, Greenbrier High biology teacher Brian Campbell was named a finalist.

Campbell's teaching method involved capturing his students' attention, even if that meant using fad dances as an instructional tool.

"I did things that caught kids' attention, some things that were not traditional," he said. "We did the Macarena to learn our anatomy. We did crazy stuff like that to make things boring more interesting."

Sometimes, Campbell asked that students pretend to be doctors; then he would feed them symptoms they had to diagnose.

Now an assistant superintendent in the Lincoln County school system, Campbell said he often urges such outside-the-box thinking with teachers working for him.

"I praise them for what they're doing well, but I always try to leave them with an idea of how they can do things differently," he said.

Lorraine Hall, 2003

To round out back-to-back-to-back state finalists, Evans Middle School seventh-grade social studies teacher Lorraine Hall was named in 2003.

"I think that my students and adults I work with understand that I have a real passion for educating kids," Hall said. "I think that's the most important thing we do in a democracy."

During her 27-year teaching career, including nine at Evans Middle, Hall has worked in Maryland, West Virginia and at an embassy in Moscow.

Such experiences, she said, allow her to relate to pupils on many levels.

"I'm hoping that I make kids intellectually curious, because that's one of the things all good teachers should strive to do," Hall said.

Shaun Owen, 2005

Like Hall, 2005 state finalist Shaun Owen taught social studies, and like Campbell, she strived to entertain while she educated.

The former sixth-grade teacher at Greenbrier Middle often incorporated multimedia presentations in her instruction.

Owen now teaches teachers and develops new curricula in her role as social studies program specialist for the state Department of Education in Atlanta.

"My goal from day one of teaching was to make the biggest impact I can," Owen said of her decision to leave the classroom last July.

Much of the work she does in her new job mirrors what she did in her free time while teaching -- conducting teacher workshops on multimedia instruction.

Owen said basic emotion plays the largest factor in teaching success.

"A lot of being a good teacher is being very passionate about what you're doing," she said. "You have to love your kids and love your subject."


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