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Education: Questions for the top teachers in the Waccamaw schools

By Roger Greene
Coastal Observer

Waccamaw Elementary

Teaching is a profession that is in Kelly McCurry’s blood. The third generation educator has helped shape young minds for 23 years. A native of Abbeville, she is in her sixth year at Waccamaw Elementary, where she teaches third grade.

McCurry earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Winthrop University and a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Central Michigan University. She has taught at every level from sixth grade to kindergarten. She and her husband, Jerry, have two children, Austin, 22 and Blake, 19.

In addition to being the school's Teacher of the Year, she is one of five finalists for the district's top teacher, who will be announced May 10.

What do you enjoy most about teaching at Waccamaw Elementary?

I love the staff and, of course, I love the parents and the students. Everybody is willing to share and to help. It’s a very close-knit community. The families are so involved and that is a very important part of being a successful teacher. It allows you to make the necessary connections to understand the child better in the classroom.

How did you find out about being named Teacher of the Year?

I wasn’t at school. I was at an instructional book fair and I got a text from one of my co-workers. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Oh my gosh, are you serious?”

What would it mean to you to be named one of the finalists for district Teacher of the Year?

It would be quite an honor. It’s an honor in itself to be chosen as Teacher of the Year at Waccamaw Elementary. It means a lot that your peers think so much of the work you do. This has been an awesome experience for me and I’m sure I’ll be excited if I’m one of the finalists chosen for the district.

What made you want to become a teacher?

I’m a third generation teacher. My grandmother taught for more than 40 years and my mom was teacher for more than 30 years. I love working with children and teaching is always something I wanted to do. When I went to college I never had any questions about what I was going to major in. I knew what I wanted to be.

What do you want your students to take away from your classroom?

I want them to be independent learners. I want them to be in charge of their learning and have the confidence to know they can succeed in the classroom.

What are the challenges presented by teaching the third grade?

Third grade can be a make or break year for some students. From kindergarten through second grade, you are learning to read. In third grade, you are reading to learn and beginning to apply the concepts behind what you are learning. It can be a difficult transition. There are many more responsibilities.

How has PASS testing changed education?

Third grade is the first year students take the test. We don’t have another grade level for comparison, so that presents a challenge up front. And the format of the test can also be an issue. It’s the first time third graders have used an answer sheet. We have to find a way to address their questions while working under the guidelines we are given.

As teachers, we don’t have the flexibility that we once had. That is something that has changed a lot since I started my career. There is so much material for us to cover, and the standards are very stringent. You want to be creative, but at the same time you have to be sure that whatever you are doing is meeting one of the standards.

What is the best part of teaching?

I love how honest the students are. I love their willingness to try new things. And I love the “ah ha” moments they have when they finally get something they have been struggling with. Those are the moments when you remember why you wanted to become a teacher. They make you glad that you were at school.

Waccamaw Intermediate

Rebecca Anderson has only taught for four years. But that was not a barrier to her being named Teacher of the Year at Waccamaw Intermediate School. Garnering the honor so quickly certainly fits Anderson’s personality of being a classic overachiever.

A native of Marine City, Mich., Anderson has spent her entire career at Waccamaw Intermediate. She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Central Michigan University and is at work on her master’s in technology and education through Leslie University.

What do you like the most about your job?

I love working with the kids and I love seeing how eager they are to be at school. They enjoy learning and there is no better feeling than watching their reactions when they are able to get the concepts that are being taught. That is something that can’t be replaced.

What is the biggest challenge in the classroom?

Being able to meet the needs of the students in the short amount of time we have. Everyone learns at different levels. Sometimes it feels like there aren’t enough minutes in the day.

How important is time management in teaching?

The abilities to plan and organize are essential parts of teaching. Those are skills you need to have if you want to help your students. Teaching in elementary school, we can be a little more flexible in terms of time. If we need an extra few minutes to work on something, we can generally have them.

What is the biggest misconception about teaching?

Probably that we work until 3 and then go home. I don’t think people realize all the extra work that goes into it. It’s not just about being in the classroom.

Typically, I’m at school to 5:30 or 6. I’m planning for the next day, making copies, straightening up the room, working on my lesson plans, or returning phone calls and e-mails. And I’ll usually take something home over the weekend to work on. It’s not a typical eight hour day by any means. There is a huge time commitment involved.

What type of student were you?

I guess I would have been called an overachiever. I always put pressure on myself to go above and beyond what was expected. That worked for me. I guess it was part of my personality. I knew what I wanted to do and wanted to make myself as good as I could possibly be.

Can there be a stigma attached to being an overachiever?

There can be at times. People can make assumptions that the students who work the hardest are the smartest ones in the class. That is not always the case. However, those types of students do put a lot of pressure on themselves. If they get a 100 on one assignment, they want to get a 100 on every assignment. They have to be able to manage that and have realistic expectations. That can be difficult to do.

Did you always want to be a teacher?

Yes. I remember when I was growing up, we would play school and I would always be the teacher. When I was in high school, I thought that was the level I would want to teach at. But when I started student teaching, I observed a couple of high school classrooms and discovered that wouldn’t be the best fit for me. It’s a totally different style of teaching than I wanted to do. I feel much more at home working with elementary school students.

What do you like best about the age group you work with?

Fourth grade is an ideal age. The kids are able to work independently and they are so excited about what they are doing. That type of energy creates a very positive environment and allows you to utilize all your skills.

What was your reaction to being chosen as Teacher of the Year?

I was surprised. It’s such great honor to receive. I feel blessed that my co-workers have that kind of faith in me, and I feel so fortunate to be working at Waccamaw Intermediate. It’s an amazing experience and one that I am so thankful for.

Waccamaw Middle

Mary Tolson believes one of the keys to being an effective teacher is making connections with students outside the classroom. Doing so has been an emphasis for her throughout a 23-year career in public education.

A native of Myrtle Beach, Tolson earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Columbia College and is currently pursuing a master’s in educational leadership at Coastal Carolina. Tolson has taught at middle schools throughout Georgetown County and is in her eighth year at Waccamaw Middle, where she teaches language arts.

Some teachers have a phobia about teaching middle school.You have with worked with this age group throughout your career. What is it about middle school that you like?

Every day is different. Middle school students think they are grown up and that is the way they want to act. But they are not grown up and you have to understand that. The thing is that you have to love them first. They have to understand you care about them. When they know that, they’re going to open up and work with you.

How do you make those connections with them?

You have to know where they are coming from and what is going on with them. You have to ask about the new pet they may have or the relative that has been sick. They appreciate that kind of effort. They want you to get to know who they are. I want to see that other side of their personality and get to know them outside of class. That’s one of the reasons I got involved with coaching.

One of the most interesting things about your career is that you are the football coach at WMS. What has been the general reaction to that?

I’ve never had a problem with any of the players. They see me every day at school and know my heart is in it. For some adults, it may be different. But coaching football is not something I just decided to do. I grew up in a football family and understand the game. I really wanted to be involved with it.

So football was a big part of your life?

My dad was a referee for 28 years. We’d go to junior varsity games on Thursday and then over to the varsity game on Friday. On Saturdays, we’d watch Clemson and then we’d all be in the living room for the NFL on Sunday. Football was just something that was a part of our family. What is the biggest misconception about coaching football?

From the stands, everything looks easy. You win every game, every player is in the right position and no detail is ever missed. On the field, it’s obviously a very different story. Everything happens fast. And you have to take it all in, understand it, and make the right decisions.

Language arts curriculum has been a point of emphasis in the county and across the nation. What are some of the issues involved with aligning the content to the needs of the students.

In the future, I think the standards are going to be geared more toward informational texts. Some of that is already taking place. Students are still reading, but it’s a different kind of reading. It may be something on Facebook or an article they see online. As teachers, we have to adapt to that.

Will there still be room for the classic fiction?

Some of the changes taking place are difficult for language arts teachers to accept. But we have to meet our students where they are and change with the times. As someone who loves reading, I certainly hope there will always be a place for the great works of fiction. There is always a benefit to reading these books. They allow students to make connections with the outside world and to understand things on a deeper level. Those needs are never going to go away.

Waccamaw High School

Veronica Noyes has always been a self-starter. Her strong work ethic helped her earn a double major in biology and psychology at Francis Marion University, and earn a master’s degree in teaching from Coastal Carolina University.

A native of Greenville, she taught at Waccamaw High for her entire five-year career, primarily teaching chemistry.

Describe your reaction at being named Teacher of the Year?

It’s very nice to get that kind of recognition from your colleagues. It lets you know that your work and efforts are appreciated. We were at a faculty meeting when the announcement was made. I knew I had been nominated, and was pleasantly surprised to be chosen.

Do you feel fortunate to have spent your entire career at Waccamaw High?

I’m very lucky. It’s a great school and we have such a wonderful faculty. I’ve learned so much from the other teachers. I’ve never been shy about asking them questions and have benefited from their experience.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in teaching?

It was a major decision for me. But I’ve always been a supporter of public education and have always believed in giving something back. I felt indebted to the teachers who helped me, and wanted to provide that same kind of help to other students.

What type of student were you and how does that experience help you in the classroom?

I had to work for everything.Nothing came easily for me. I feel that I have a very strong work ethic and believe that shows in the way I teach. I look at everything I ask my students to do. I don’t just give them assignments as busy work. I’m not going to ask them to make any type of commitment that I’m not willing to make myself.

What do you want your students to take away from your classroom?

I want them to be good learners and understand how important it is that they keep growing. I think sometimes the thinking is that what you do in school is only about the grade. I want them to look beyond that. I want them to really have understood the content and the things we discussed.

Are there any specific challenges when it comes to teaching high school students?

High school can be a very difficult four years. There is so much change going on as students are being asked to take on adult responsibilities. As teachers, we try to hold them accountable for that and prepare them for the transitions that are taking place. It can be tough.

You work primarily with juniors. How pivotal of a year is that for students?

It’s a crucial year for students who are looking to go to college, so there is plenty of motivation for them to want to do well. The content tends to get more difficult. It’s on a level many of them have not seen before and there is a definite challenge because of that.

Are chemistry and the sciences in general difficult subjects to teach?

The content can be challenging. It requires abstract thinking and it forces you to use your imagination. The part of it the kids enjoy are the labs. They get to move around, see what their peers are doing and see how things work. Writing up what they have seen is a little different. That is where they have to sit down and dissect things and draw conclusions. The level of critical thinking required causes some students to struggle. It’s not easy to master.

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