They’re charged with instructing our youth, but this year, Arkansas teachers got quite the education.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which involved unexpected crash courses in problem-solving and quick thinking, has required teachers at all education levels to master new classroom technology and coping skills.
Due to health concerns, Arkansas schools were shuttered in March; the state-mandated closure was extended through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Troubling virus counts led Gov. Asa Hutchinson to postpone the start of the 2020-2021 academic year by two weeks. Even with the delay, many students didn’t return to school buildings to join their face-masked peers and teachers, opting for virtual learning via computer at home.
Through all the changes, one thing has remained the same: the commitment of educators determined to help their students thrive both academically and personally.
The Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas have sponsored the Arkansas Rural Education Association’s Teacher of the Year Awards since 2004. Nominations are vetted by the state’s 15 educational cooperatives, which each submit a finalist to the Arkansas Rural Education Association for consideration. A panel selects a northern Arkansas winner and southern Arkansas winner.
Recently named Arkansas Rural Teachers of the Year are Courtney Farmer of Jasper Elementary School in northern Arkansas and Majesta Maxwell of Bradley High School in southern Arkansas.
Rob Roedel, director of corporate communications for the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, says, “Each year, we are amazed by the dedication and passion that the Rural Teachers of the Year put into their profession. I am a graduate of a small rural school, along with many others at our electric cooperatives, so we know the value of rural educators. And we have firsthand knowledge of the level of education that they provide to tomorrow’s leaders.”
Both Farmer and Maxwell received a crystal apple gift and a check for $1,000 from the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas.
They also received a (masked and socially distant) classroom visit during the second week of school from Arkansas Living.
Courtney Farmer – Jasper Elementary School
Although the desks are intentionally positioned so that third and fourth grade students can stay
safely spaced 6 feet apart, there’s still a feeling of closeness in Courtney Farmer’s classroom, which is full of feel-good signs.
“This is our happy place.”
“Home sweet classroom.”
“What I love most about my classroom is whom I share it with.” Whom. Farmer is, after all, a literacy teacher.
She says a difficult aspect of teaching in these times is the distance factor. Not only is she downloading digital lessons for a handful of virtual students that she must connect with via phone and computer, she has to be separated physically from her in-person students.
“It’s new for me because I’ve always taught shared reading on a big rug,” she says. “And we all come together because I love to get them close, and we break down the text together.
“But we’re doing what we have to do.”
So, gone is her rug for now. But she was able to keep the little couch in the cozy back corner.
“That’s my safe place,” she explains. Kids who feel frustrated or overwhelmed are able to head there for a voluntary time-out to decompress. Between the safe place and “brain breaks” she offers every 15 to 30 minutes, Farmer says, “I never have a behavior problem in my room.”
In her room this year is one child particularly close to Farmer: her own daughter. Farmer lives in nearby Hasty with her husband, David, her 4-year-old son, Emmett, and her 8-year-old daughter — and now student — Emily.
“This is the first time I’ve ever had to teach my own child,” Farmer says. “I don’t ever want it to look like I’m calling on her more, and I also don’t want to be harder on her. … I try not to take school home with her. So, if I’ve tested her in class, I’m not going to talk to her about it at home because I’m her teacher here and her mom at home. “That’s a fine line.”
Speaking of line, following recess, it’s time for Farmer’s homeroom fourth graders to line up and head to their next class. They don their masks — required when they’re in the hall and on the bus and in situations when they can’t social distance — and grab their binders, laptops, earphones and water bottles (communal fountains are off-limits these days).
Says Farmer, “You’re not only worried now about getting the curriculum to them, but now you’re like, ‘How do I keep them physically safe?’ I’m telling you, I was so impressed the first week because I was so nervous coming in. They have done so well. They’ll put their masks on. I’ve only had to remind a couple, ‘When you’re out in the halls, you have to have them on.’”
Something teachers are allowed to have on this year: scrubs, which are designed to endure rigorous washing.
“We just didn’t wear them the first week,” Farmer says. “We didn’t want kids to think they were coming to a hospital.”
A graduate of Arkansas Tech University, Farmer taught at Bergman Elementary in Harrison before joining Jasper Elementary in 2016. She has taught children of all ages and especially enjoys teaching ages 8 to 10.
“They’re old enough that they are independent; you can trust them with some stuff, but they are still like sponges; they just soak it up. … My favorite thing — and that’s why I miss my carpet area so much — is when they’re coming closer to you, and you know you’ve got them!”
She was her students’ age when she first felt inspired to become a teacher.
“My third grade teacher is the reason I’m a teacher,” Farmer says. “I loved her. She brought learning to life.”
As does Farmer, which a former student expressed to her in a memorable way.
“When my first class I ever taught graduated from high school, I got a letter in the mail. He said, ‘You will always be my favorite teacher’ with a little smiley face. I kept it; I’m not ever going to throw it away.”
When asked how she wants her students of today — exuberant Jasper Pirates who gasp and stretch to look taller as they raise their hands to answer questions about prefixes — to remember her, she says, “I want them to know that I care about them socially; I care about their physical needs and their education. It’s the whole child. I don’t want you just to learn the reading. I want you to know that you’re loved when you’re here and that I care when you leave here. I want to know how you’re going to do in fifth grade, sixth grade, high school. I’m never going out of your life.
“You’re stuck with me.”
Majesta Maxwell – Bradley High School
Long before she was a teacher at a rural school, Majesta Maxwell was a student at one.
“I grew up in a rural school, kind of like where I’m teaching now. I went to the same school K-12,” says Maxwell, who teaches seventh and eighth grade English/Language Arts at Bradley High School, home of the Bears, where worn, purple-painted claw prints on the sidewalk guide the way to the entrance.
About the benefits of attending a rural school in her youth, Maxwell writes in her Arkansas Rural Teacher of the Year application, “There was always something so
comforting about knowing that, when I returned to school each fall, I would be seeing many of the same teachers, even if I was no longer in their classes. Going back to school didn’t feel like going back to drudgery I’d avoided all summer; it felt like going home.”
She felt especially at home in her English classes.
“To be frank, I’m a huge English nerd,” admits Maxwell, who has a Sylvia Plath quote posted on her classroom door (“Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences”). “Those teachers made learning about English enjoyable, and they made me actually want to get into reading books and think about literature as an actual thing versus something that you have to do because it’s class.”
Still, she didn’t think about becoming a teacher — one who’d spend mornings explaining affixes to students — until college. As a student at Southern Arkansas University and a member of Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society, she gave a presentation at a conference in Portland, Oregon, that changed the course of her life.
“I remember just feeling so comfortable and feeling like this is what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to talk about literature, and I’m supposed to talk about writing, and I really enjoy the process of helping people understand a piece more.” It dawned on her: “‘Maybe you should be teaching.’”
Maxwell began her teaching career at her university as a co-teacher, fellow and graduate assistant, and has taught at Ridgewood Middle School in Shreveport, Louisiana, in addition to Bradley High School.
These days, teaching for Maxwell involves in-class and virtual instruction.
“The most challenging aspect of teaching during a pandemic is trying to keep all learners engaged across various platforms,” she says. “A technique that thoroughly engages a face-to-face child might fall flat for a virtual student.”
Additional challenges: Having to occasionally remind students to keep masks fully on their face. And the end-of-class sanitization of desks that Maxwell handles herself before her students — the ones who “become something as near and dear to us as our own children,” as she writes in her application — head back out into the hallways lined with purple lockers. Maxwell, herself, is mother to a 3-year-old daughter and a stepson who lives in California.
As for the ages she most enjoys teaching, Maxwell says, “I really like being the threshold between elementary and high school. … It’s in the junior high stage, the seventh and eighth grade stage, that teachers really have the opportunity to help students discover themselves as academics.”
Still, they can be difficult grades to teach.
“Students kind of drop off the map for reading comprehension around sixth, seventh and eighth grade, and I personally think that’s because they stop reading for pleasure. I really enjoy teaching seventh and eighth grade. We can talk about books, and I let them read pretty much whatever they’d like to read. I don’t make them read within their Lexile level. We have common texts that we read together, and we get together and talk about them. But outside of that, I let them follow their own passion for literature, or I help them find a passion for literature because, for some kids, it’s just not their cup of tea when they roll in.”
And Maxwell understands that passion fuels learning.
“I hope that when they think back to having me as a teacher that they remember the times I tried to make learning accessible to them regardless of what their interest was. I try to make my classes fun, so even if you hate reading, you’re going to come in the room, and we’re going to find something that you enjoy.
“I hope they would remember me as a person who cared about their success and who tried really hard to find just about any means possible to ensure they had the tools necessary to achieve that success.”