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Top early grade teachers honored
County's teacher of year to be named Tuesday
WPE Donnell
Second-grade teacher Velma Donnell is Waldo Pafford Elementary School teacher of the year

They’re innovators who bridge the past, present and future within four-walled rooms. They harness technology, textbooks and their own experiences to educate today’s children. And each year, the top ones are named Teachers of the Year.
The Liberty County Board of Education will announce its Teacher of the Year on Tuesday afternoon, but the Courier would like to recognize educators selected from each school.

Pre-K Center
Pre-K teacher Melissa Ruckart has 16 years of experience with students in kindergarten, first grade and preschool.
“I was encouraged to enter the teaching field by many friends and teachers that noticed my gift and my ability to relate to young children. I teach because I want to be a north star,” Ruckart said. “I want to give students a ticket to the future, a foundation for their dreams and an opportunity to be so much more than they ever thought possible.”`

Button Gwinnett Elementary
First-grade teacher Sandra Richardson was tapped after being nominated by a popular vote and selected among three finalists.  
Richardson has more than 10 years of experience, but she said calling began when she was only 8 years old.
“I would find myself digging through my teacher’s trash can, retrieving unwanted teaching materials,” she said. “Once I had gotten home, finishing up my homework, I would play teacher with my sister and brothers.”
BGE Principal Mary Guiendon said Richardson has taught first and third grades at the school and challenges her students to think outside the box in an exciting environment.
One of her colleagues described it as magic happening.
Her classroom and instruction are very structured and rhythmic. Students snap their fingers, clap their hands and stomp their feet to the beat of learning throughout their lessons.
“I felt like a rocket ship making history of its first landing on the moon,” Richardson said about the honor. “That feeling was out of this world; I am truly humbled and gracious to have such an honor bestowed upon me.”

Frank Long Elementary
Kindergarten teacher Sharon Long was nominated by a jury of her peers and selected by a review committee of prior teachers of the year and resource teachers.
“She holds outstanding qualities that we look for in all of our teachers. … Her classroom is a well-balanced place of learning and fun activities that demands students to participate in the learning process,” curriculum coordinator Kellie Ziegler said.
Long, who has both a bachelor’s and master’s in education from Georgia Southern University, has 23 years of classroom experience — 19 years as a kindergarten teacher and four years with first-grade — and has taught at Jordye Bacon Elementary, Button Gwinnett Elementary and Joseph Martin Elementary. She also taught briefly in Atlanta and Savannah.
She returned to Liberty County to teach at FLE, where she has worked for the past four years.
“I think it is a great honor to be nominated and selected by my peer teachers. I think there are many great educators here at FLE and I feel all of us are great teachers in our own way,” Long said.

Jordye Bacon Elementary
Speech-language pathologist Kyndra Robinson was nominated by her teachers and voted by faculty for the honor.
“She gets to work early, leaves late, is involved in every after-school activity we have and, more importantly, she is a fantastic teacher who is loved by her students,” JBE Principal Dr. Mike Johnson said.
Robinson, who serves kindergarten through eighth-grade students, has been in the school system almost 13 years and, as she put it, is dedicated to “providing students with disabilities a means to effectively communicate their thoughts, ideas, and feelings verbally, nonverbally, and in written form.”
Robinson earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech and language pathology at Valdosta State University and is working toward a specialist degree in reading.
“I am an advocate for lifelong learning,” Robinson said. “I am truly humbled and pleased to receive such a prestigious honor from outstanding educators, for I know educating students and teaching is a rewarding profession with lifelong benefits.”
Joseph Martin Elementary
Special-education teacher Barbara Pelton officially has taught for two years, but between raising teenage daughters and working with Girl Scouts of America, she said she feels she’s been teaching most of her adult life.
She was selected by popular vote among certified staff members, and Joseph Martin Assistant Principal Brittney Mobley said Pelton works closely with students, their parents and other teachers.
“She constantly strives to provide her students with the richest and most meaningful learning opportunities,” Mobley said. “Whether it is her own students or other students in the school, Mrs. Pelton has a true interest in ensuring all students receive a quality education.”
 “I love teaching, and I view each student as a challenge and a puzzle,” she said. “No two students are alike, especially in the special-education arena. I want to reach every student where they learn.”
“Raising my own children has given me an understanding of how different children learn,” Pelton said. “Understanding those differences allows a teacher to foster learning and create well-rounded students.”

Liberty Elementary
Reading and mathematics instructional coach Ebony Deigh has been at Liberty Elementary in Midway for eight years.
The Georgia Southern University graduate was a third-grade homeroom teacher and co-lab instructor during her first seven years on the campus, and she said she incorporates technology, music and movement into her lessons.
“My instructional delivery method engages students with hands-on interactive learning,” Deigh said. “Possessing a true zest for teaching and a genuine love for students and people makes teaching easy and rewarding.”
Deigh is a product of the Liberty County School System and attended Jordye Bacon Elementary, Snelson-Golden Middle School and Bradwell Institute.
“My teaching philosophy is guided by this quote: ‘Education is not the piling on of learning, information, data, facts, skills or abilities — that’s training or instruction — but is rather making visible what is hidden as a seed.”  

Lyman Hall Elementary
Kindergarten teacher Anna Linzan was selected by all certified personnel in the building, and she won by such a great margin that no second vote was required, according to LHE Principal Claire Blanchard.
Linzan graduated from Brewton-Parker College in 2006 and was a student-teacher at Lyman Hall Elementary before being offered a teaching position.
Since then, she was earned a master’s degree from Nova Southeastern University.
LHE Principal Claire Blanchard said the top teacher balances each student’s pace with the state curriculum while maintaining high standards.
“She works long hours, works closely with the students’ parents and researches for new ideas and methods to help her students succeed,” Blanchard said. “The words ‘student failure’ are not in Ms. Linzan’s vocabulary.”
“It was through volunteering and then getting a job as a paraprofessional that I heard my calling to become a teacher,” said Linzan, the spouse of a military retiree whose work brought the couple to Hinesville.

Taylors Creek Elementary
Third-grade mathematics and science teacher Diane Sanker took the top spot after the entire staff voted on their preliminary picks, determined the top three to five finishers, and then voted again after learning the finalists’ biographical information, professional learning qualifications, community involvement and views on educational trends.
TCE Principal Debbie Rodriguez said Sanker makes a “heroic effort to do whatever it takes to prepare her children for the challenges of the 21st century workplace.”
The 30-year educator cited her father’s influence for instilling in her a love of learning.
“I believe all students can learn, and that it is my job to find a way to make that possible.
“I strive to help my students make a personal connection to their learning,” she said. “I want them to be determined problem solvers, critical thinkers and independent learners. My greatest joy is when I hear a student say, ‘I’ve got this!’”
“When you walk into her classroom you see students actively engaged in learning,” Rodriguez said. “Hers is a very ‘hands-on’ approach; her students don’t just watch, they do.”

Waldo Pafford Elementary
Second-grade teacher Velma Donnell is in her 18th year of education, and she credits her success to the educators who supported her, especially her 12th-grade accounting teacher.
“Mrs. Dwinda (Lewis) Wilson has had the most profound effect on me as to why I chose teaching as a career,” Donnell said. “She took time to meet my guardians, helped complete college applications and drove me to North Carolina to visit her alma mater.”
Donnell said she believes in motivating children through whatever means necessary, including humor. Her ultimate goal is for them to “make connections with life experiences, draw conclusions and formulate opinions.”
“My students think I’m ‘funny,’ and each day they get a good laugh from something in my teaching,” she said. “It gives me joy when a student shares with their parent something about their day in school — whether it was a funny song I made up to help them remember a concept or a story I told to help them relate to a lesson.”

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