Six of the best and brightest educators Baldwin County has to offer will be honored this week.

The Baldwin County School District’s annual Teacher of the Year banquet is slated for Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. inside Georgia College’s Magnolia Ballroom. There, the six school level winners will be recognized and one will be named the 2019 Baldwin County Teacher of the Year. That person will go on to represent Baldwin County at the state level for Georgia Teacher of the Year. 

The six school winners and district-wide candidates are: Oak Hill Middle School’s Nikki Curtis, Midway Hills Academy’s Anna Dunn, Baldwin High School’s Dr. Candice Haynes, Lakeview Primary’s Ashley Lee, Lakeview Academy’s Ryan Maraziti and Midway Hills Primary’s Katrina Veal. 

As in previous years, each winner/candidate faced an arduous selection process to make it as far as they have. Some qualifications include that they must be a certified classroom teacher having completed a minimum of three years teaching. These district finalists were nominated by their peers and had to submit an application packet featuring multiple questions with lengthy responses. They are then observed in the classroom by the district Teacher of the Year committee, which is made up of a former Teacher of the Year, teacher leader, PTSO/school council representative, higher education institution representative and a school administrator. Finally, the school level candidates sit down and interview with that same committee before being chosen as school winner. 

But only one will go on to fly the Baldwin County flag at the state level. Here’s just a little bit about the six 2019 winners/candidates. Comments have been pulled from their application packets, which were provided to The Union-Recorder by the Baldwin County School District.

Oak Hill sixth grade English teacher Nikki Curtis is a United States Air Force veteran who served for seven years as head chef at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. After having served seven years, Curtis was chosen to teach new recruits how to do her job, and admits in her application to having been nervous about becoming an instructor. She didn’t always know she wanted to become a classroom teacher as she was initially pursuing a graduate degree in project management. When a classroom of students was placed before her that just couldn’t grasp the concepts she was presenting, Curtis worked with them closely until they understood the material. 

“The feeling I received and the gratitude of these young people filled me with so much joy and admiration,” Curtis said. “It was at that moment that I decided to change my master’s degree from project management to education with a concentration in curriculum and instruction.”

Midway Hills Academy’s Anna Dunn is an early intervention program (EIP) teacher whose focus is to get students that are falling behind in reading caught up to their peers. EIP is still a very new program in Baldwin County, and Dunn had a hand in implementing it at Midway Hills Academy. Through it she helped students become more motivated to read, not just for school, but on their own as well, leading to higher test scores. Dunn holds an associate’s degree from Georgia Military College and bachelor’s from Georgia College and State University in early childhood education. Her own learning career didn’t end there though as she went on to earn her master’s in counseling from Troy State University. Dunn also holds a specialist degree in curriculum and instruction and a couple of teaching endorsements. 

“It is my strong belief that all students can be world-changers through education regardless of their starting point,” Dunn said. “All it takes is a plan, a little encouragement, hard work and a lot of determination. I truly believe that education makes it possible to defeat all barriers.” 

Dr. Candice Haynes is a homegrown product having graduated from Baldwin High in 1992 where she returned to teach in 2008. She has been at her high school alma mater ever since then and now serves as the science department chair. Haynes entered college as a biology/pre-med major with the goal to graduate in four years. She was able to accomplish that goal at Paine College in Augusta before attending the Medical College of Georgia where she obtained an additional bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy. She also holds a master’s degree in public health from Mercer and her educational doctorate from Nova Southeastern University. Haynes began her professional career as a respiratory therapist, but eventually decided to transition into public education to make a difference in the lives of young people.

“Children are born into this world innocent, unblemished and blank like a canvas,” Haynes said. “I truly feel as though those blank canvases are our responsibility to help them discover their potential to become whatever they want to be. Educators should be motivators who inspire children to want more knowledge.” 

Lakeview Primary’s Ashley Lee is in her eighth year teaching in public schools with her career having started as a combination kindergarten/first grade teacher. Her experience in blended-age classrooms has led her to her current position as a teacher in Baldwin County’s newly-founded Montessori program. Montessori got its start locally a couple years ago at the pre-k level, but is now reaching up into the primary school ranks this year. To train for the experience she traveled to different counties across two states to observe and familiarize herself with the public and private use of Montessori education. Through that she, one of her teaching team members and their principal Tracy Clark began implementing the innovative learning method inside their school building this year.

“Each day should begin with students knowing they are important, loved and wanted,” Lee said. “I end each day with a positive goodbye and let them know I look forward to seeing them the next day. My greatest accomplishment has not been high test scores. My greatest accomplishment has been watching students set and accomplish personal and academic goals.” 

Lakeview Academy’s Ryan Maraziti, or “Coach Maz” as his pupils know him, has made an impact on his students through his own “Waffle Wednesday” initiative. In an effort to improve his classroom community, he began making waffles for his students each hump day. But not only do he and his students get to enjoy a waffle, more are made and delivered by his students to staff around the school building, giving both teacher and child a different view of one another outside of just their normal educator and pupil roles. Maraziti has also implemented a VIP desk inside his classroom. No, it’s not a desk surrounded by velvet ropes accessible to only celebrities. This definition of VIP is a “very influential person.” The desk is occupied by a new student daily who is chosen by their peers based on exceptional behavior or doing something kind for someone else. 

“Growth is a choice, and it must be intentional,” Maraziti said. “The impact of my teaching is a reflection of the idea that each student is growing, and my goal is to nurture a desire for continued growth by continually expecting their best. When students know someone believes in them it’s a reason to show up each day. It’s those reasons, not their grades, that keep them from showing up.”

Midway Hills Primary teacher Katrina Veal, another local product, is Baldwin County’s first dedicated STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) educator. MHP students enter her classroom each week eager for hands-on learning opportunities that, little do they know, could be shaping them for future careers. Veal says she didn’t always want to be a teacher, but that became her chosen path when she entered Mrs. Gussie Harris Sutton’s eighth-grade math class. Mrs. Sutton made math exciting, according to Veal, and had her students recite “I am somebody” in class every day. In her teaching career Veal has been featured in positive television news segments multiple times and even in a book titled “Teaching in the Fast Lane.” 

“My idea of an outstanding educator is one who realizes that students have a variety of cognitive, behavioral and emotional needs which must all be addressed when providing a quality education,” Veal said. “An outstanding educator is one who relentlessly searches for effective and engaging pedagogical strategies, who differentiates instruction to meet the needs of his or her students, and who demands that students consistently put forth his or her personal best and who understands that this differs based on where students are in their academic journey.”

These six teachers, educators, difference-makers, or what ever title you want to bestow upon them, will represent their respective schools at Thursday’s banquet where an overall district winner will be named.

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