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Brenau honors 9 at Masters in Teaching event
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Jenna Blackwell, a fifth-grade math and social studies teacher at Lakeview Academy, speaks Wednesday, March 21, 2018, during Brenau University’s 2018 Masters in Teaching program. Nine recipients were asked to discuss their own inspirations for becoming educators during the discussion at the university’s Downtown Center. - photo by Scott Rogers

Teachers are often some of the most inspiring people in a young person’s life, helping them identify what they want to do for work when they grow up and providing the guidance on how to accomplish their dreams.

The nine recipients of Brenau University’s 2018 Masters in Teaching honors were asked to discuss their own inspirations for becoming educators during a discussion on Wednesday, March 21, at the university’s Downtown Center.

Jenna Blackwell, who teaches fifth-grade math and social studies as Lakeview Academy, said she was inspired by her father just as she was entering college.

While attending Georgia Southern, Blackwell said, her father was enrolled at Kennesaw State, having returned to school to pursue a degree in teaching middle schoolers.

Blackwell thought teaching would be a good fit for her, too, and father and daughter were able to support one another’s journey as educators by “swapping stories ... leaning on each other in those hard times and celebrating our joys.”

Jennifer Graff, an associate professor of art at the University of North Georgia, said she was inspired by what she imagined life teaching art would mean for her.

It was perceived as a “cool gig,” she said, an opportunity to work with other creative and like-minded individuals while “earning a paycheck as an artist.”

“It all looked really good to me and it has been really good,” she added.

Cindy Grier, a math teacher at East Hall High who was named the teacher of the year in Hall County Schools for 2018-19, said her biggest inspiration was her faith.

The Lord has a plan, she said, and “once I was let in on that plan, things just started falling into place. I just followed a path that opened for me.”

Adondra Little, a first-grade teacher at Fair Street Elementary, joked about “having summers off” as an inspiration for becoming a teacher before letting on about what truly drove her toward the profession.

“My inspiration really was my mom,” she said, adding that seeing her mother work in a setting taught her a lot.

“I could tell that was her niche,” Little added. “I would get the same feeling working with children.”

Rhonda “Christy” Morris, a kindergarten teacher at Oakwood Elementary School, said she was inspired by her own teachers growing up, as well as her love for children.

“I just know that I always had a heart for service and for helping others,” she added.

Andrew Pedry, a social studies teacher at Riverside Military Academy, a said his inspiration to teach stems from a love of country and his service in the nation’s military, including a stint in Iraq in 2003.

“I like to think things through ahead of time,” Pedry said, and before going to the Middle East he thought about what he would do with his life if he returned home maimed. “These are the kinds of things you should think about before you find yourself at Walter Reed.”

Pedry found the answer in education.

For Maura Pittman, who teaches fourth-grade through eighth-grade students at the Academy of Innovation, her biggest inspiration came from inside her home.

Pittman worked in the travel business for many years before becoming an educator, and it was her own son’s learning disability that prompted her to teach.

“If I could help him, I could help other students, as well,” she said. “Building children’s self-esteem is just as important as building their reading ability and their academic and learning ability.”

Bryan Sorohan, a professor of education at Brenau University, said he draws his inspiration from his parents.

Sorohan recalls how his father, a respected educator, was constantly approached by delighted former students.

And he took his father’s motto to heart: “The quality of your life can’t be any better than the quality of the lives of those around you.”

Sorohan also recognized his mother, who always seemed to know interesting facts about people and places, for instilling in him a sense of curiosity that later prompted him to explore a master’s degree in social studies education.

For Amanda Studer, a third-grade teacher at Mundy Mill Academy, the path to becoming an educator was motivated by a lack of fulfillment in her marketing career.

“So when the opportunity came, I jumped on it,” she said. “My inspiration was that I wanted to make a difference in someone’s life.”

The teachers akk said they have seen many changes and new challenges arise in their years in the classroom.

“I think technology has definitely influenced education,” Blackwell said.

And while it can be a productive tool for students, Blackwell said technology needs to be balanced with traditional ways of learning.

Grier said the connectivity of technology forces teachers to compete with many more distractions in the classroom these days as cellphones become ubiquitous.

“There’s obviously a tremendous difference in the student population,” she added. “To stay relevant in the classroom, you have to meet those challenges.”

Sorohan said the sheer amount and availability of information that technology facilitates has been challenging for educators “because you have to keep up with it.”

Moreover, the challenge teachers face is teaching students how to understand the information pouring in through their fingertips.

“I think we can easily see from the past couple of years that understanding how to evaluate information … is one of the most important skills because we’re awash in information now.”  

Pedry agreed. Teaching critical thinking skills is important for those things “you can’t Google search.”

“As facts become more available, the concepts with which we interpret the facts become ever more critical,” he added.

The challenges don’t end there.

Pittman said one of the biggest tasks teachers face is ensuring a positive, healthy and safe environment that supports learning while also allowing students to “have fun doing it.”

Studer said teachers have more responsibilities than ever and have to wear many hats they never expected.

“When I first started teaching, I didn’t realize that when I walked in the door I wasn’t just going to be the teacher,” she said, adding that educators are often also like therapists, comedians, referees and nurses. “There are so many titles that come along with a teacher.”  

Little said changes in curriculum, particularly greater emphasis on testing and standardized assessments, also has teachers serving many different roles.

“Now, there’s so much to be taught,” she added. “It’s very challenging. It’s becoming more rigorous.”

Morris said she agreed and believes that not prioritizing socialization skills at a young age is detrimental for all students.

“Sometimes we’re forgetting those developmental things,” she added. “When kids are being bullied in middle school and high school, maybe it’s because they didn’t learn to play with each other in kindergarten.”

For Graff, the pressures of teaching at the university level have also played a role in skewing priorities.

“I think it’s important that we all keep in mind that we’re there in the first place to teach,” she said.

Jenna Blackwell

Teaches: Fifth-grade math and social studies at Lakeview Academy

Inspiration: Her father, also an educator. “Leaning on each other in those hard times and celebrating our joys.”

Jennifer Graff

Teaches: Ceramics at University of North Georgia

Inspiration: Teaching art seemed like a “cool gig,” she said, an opportunity to work with other creative people. “It all looked really good to me and it has been really good.”

Cindy Grier

Teaches: Math at East Hall High

Inspiration: The Lord. “Once I was let in on that plan, things just started falling into place. I just followed a path that opened for me.”

Adondra Little

Teaches: First grade at Fair Street Elementary

Inspiration: Her mother, also an educator. “I could tell that was her niche. I would get the same feeling working with children.”

Rhonda (Christy) Morris

Teaches: Kindergarten at Oakwood Elementary

Inspiration: Her own teachers and the students she now educates. “I just know that I always had a heart for service and for helping others.”

Andrew Pedry

Teaches: Social studies at Riverside Military Academy

Inspiration: America. “For America to continue to be the light of hope I still think it is, it requires us to teach and teach well.”

Maura Pittman

Teaches: Fourth-grade through eighth-grade students at the Academy of Innovation

Inspiration: Her son. “If I could help him, I could help other students, as well.”

Bryan Sorohan

Teaches: Professor of education at Brenau University

Inspiration: His parents, also educators. “I still draw my inspiration from my parents. Education is a family business.”

Amanda Studer

Teaches: Third grade at Mundy Mill Academy

Inspiration: Fulfillment in work. “My inspiration was that I wanted to make a difference in someone’s life.”

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