With her back to her classroom, Lisa Strack, a fifth-grade math teacher at West End, noticed her students were suddenly abuzz and whipped around to find Gayland Cooper, superintendent of Rome City Schools, grasping a bunch of red and gold balloons tethered to a chocolate treat.
“Congratulations Mrs. Strack,” said Cooper, “You’ve been selected as the Teacher of the Year for Rome City Schools!”
And his announcement was followed by a round of applause and joyful cheers from the students.
“Thank you so much,” Strack said, fighting back tears. “This is my life. My world revolves around these kids and my job. With all of the challenges that education faces today, it’s my duty to do the best that I can every day.”
Strack’s students said her teaching methods help them to solve problems on their own, making them better and brighter students.
“I think she’s a good teacher because she makes learning fun,” said 10-year-old Ben Miller. “If we need help, she will help you with whatever you need help with but not give you a straight answer.”
“She makes learning for us more understandable, and it’s a lot easier for us to figure out the answer and stuff,” said Luke Corbett, 10. “She really helps us when we get stuck on a problem.”
Cooper said the nominees filled out applications delineating their careers and focusing on the accomplishments and contributions they’ve made in the classroom.
“When they’re recognized, they’re recognized because they’ve helped students achieve more, but they also have developed a relationship with all of their students,” he said. “When students really know that their teacher likes them and cares about the progress they’re making, they’re going to do everything they can to please their teacher.”
Teacher of the Year runner up Natalie Hall, a third-grade teacher at North Heights Elementary, was equally surprised Tuesday morning when Cooper popped in to tell her the good news.
“I think it’s a great honor,” Hall said, holding her prize of red and gold balloons. “There’s tons of excellent teachers in our school system, and I’m just proud to be one of them.”
Cynthia Henderson was named 2014 Support Employee of the year for her work as a bus driver. When Cooper dropped in on her at the Maintenance and Transportation Department, Henderson was speechless.
“I’m totally undeserving,” Henderson spluttered. “I don’t know. I’m just overwhelmed. I don’t know what to say. Honestly, I’ve just been working here a long time, and I just do my job and do what I’m supposed to do.”
But Cooper said that while the system employs many wonderful bus drivers, there is something special about Henderson.
“She knows more bus routes than anybody in Rome City Schools,” Cooper said. “If you’ve got a child to pick up somewhere, you ask Mrs. Henderson, and she can tell you how to get there, the quickest route and who else is riding that bus that day. She loves those children.”
Henderson nodded emphatically.
“They’re my children,” she said. “When those children are on my bus, they’re my children, and I take care of them like they are my children. Because they are my children for the day.”