PELL CITY -- They grew up in the same community, attended the same high school, work for the same employer, and now Valerie Curtis and Leslie Hughes will both travel to Montgomery next month as finalists for the Alabama 2019-20 Teacher of the Year award.

“I wish them both all the luck in the world,” said Dr. Michael Barber, superintendent of Pell City Schools. “I know they would both represent the Teacher of the Year with distinction.”

Barber said it may be the first time two teachers from the same school system were selected among the 16 finalists for Alabama Teacher of the Year.

“I know it is the first time for us,” he said.

Both teachers were selected from District VI, Curtis as the district’s Secondary Teacher of the Year and Hughes as the district’s Elementary School Teacher of the Year. The selections were based on their vast educational experience and professional performance.

“It’s great Pell City swept our district,” Barber said. “It is so rare to have two teachers from the same district represented in the final 16. I think it’s remarkable.”

According to the Alabama Department of Education, the 16 finalists emerged from a group of 140 highly skilled educators who submitted official applications. The Alabama Teacher of the Year Program is one of the state’s oldest and most esteemed awards programs, according to department officials.

Barber said Curtis and Hughes are exceptional teachers.

“When you have teachers invest in their profession, and a system that invests in teachers, everyone benefits,” Barber said. “I’m very proud. I don’t think we could be represented any better than with these two ladies.”

COOL, CALM AND COLLECTED

The first-grade teacher sat at a table, surrounded by a group of students.

Like cutting a deck of cards, Hughes slapped small, colorful paper plates with words written on the back down in the middle of the table.

As she stacked the plates in the middle of the table, students read each word aloud, “Help, too, before, old, line, where, any, mean, same, great…”

“OK, now just the girls,” Hughes said as she glanced around the table to make sure her students could read the words.

Hughes followed the lesson by handing individual books to her students.

“Turn to page 49,” she instructed. “When you get there, take a look at the words at the bottom of the page.”

Students read the words aloud before turning to the next page to practice their reading skills.

She watched students as they read aloud, making sure they were able to read the text.

“I enjoyed having you read that story to me,” Hughes told the students.

Sometimes, students would get a little loud in the classroom as she worked with individual groups, but it wasn’t noise from playing, it was the music of learning.

Students were working on assignments, figuring out how to connect to a particular lesson. Some students were helping their classmates with the lesson for the day.

When students got a little loud, Hughes would calmly ask them to lower their voices. She never once raised her voice as she talked through a speaker system.

“They have to quiet down to hear me,” Hughes explained. “The energy I project is what they are going to pick up.”

Hughes keeps cool, calm and collected as soft, “super market” music is piped into the classroom. It all seems to work -- students are keenly focused on learning, problem solving and critical thinking while at the same time developing emotional and social skills with other students.

“They have a great little learning community in there,” Barber said of Hughes’ classroom.

Hughes is constantly offering words of encouragement, as well as words of kindness.

“I do love your baseball shirt,” she told one student as the class lined up to go out to the playground.

Hughes said she was surprised to learn she was a finalist for Teacher of the Year.

Her principal, Dr. Melissa Kelley, delivered the news to her while she was in class with her students.

“I just got this letter for you,” she told Hughes.

Hughes opened the letter.

“It was a big surprise,” she said. “My kids were all excited.”

Hughes, a National Board Certified Teacher, has taught both first- and third-graders in the past nine years.

BEYOND THE DIGITAL FOOTPRINT

Curtis, the Pell City High School building technology coordinator, is responsible for maintaining digital devices, but she is also helping leave a digital footprint that prepares, as well as protects, students.

“I do a lot of co-teaching,” Curtis said as she prepared for a class to help students learn how to do a digital portfolio and resume.

When it comes to digital devices, Curtis is the go-to person at the high school and beyond.

She instructs teachers about how to use digital devices to their advantage in the classroom. She also teaches students about online etiquette, what is and is not acceptable online behavior.

But there is more.

“It’s not just about consumption,” Curtis said. “We teach students innovation and how to create using devices.”

Barber said Curtis’ role as a building technology coordinator is crucial.

“It’s a role she developed,” Barber said. “And she stays on the cutting edge of technology.”

On Friday, through step-by-step instruction, Curtis navigated students through the process of developing resumes for their digital portfolios. It was a lesson to help prepare students for the transition after they graduate from high school.

She stood in front of the classroom and asked students to log onto their Gmail accounts. She then guided students to already prepared portfolios and resumes.

Through example, Curtis showed students what constitutes a good and not-so-good portfolio and resume.

“So now you get an idea of what an appropriate portfolio looks like,” she told students. “What is a resume?”

Curtis instructed the students to type their answer on their laptop computers. Again she walked down the aisles between the desks.

“Good, good, exactly,” Curtis said as she stopped and looked at students’ laptops. “I’m seeing some great answers right now.”

Through encouragement, Curtis engaged the students as to what they should put on their own resumes.

“I am going to help you every step of the way – don’t stress,” she told students.

By the end of the session, students were well on their way to preparing their own personal professional resumes.

“Perfect,” she told a student. “If you have work experience, go ahead and put that down.”

Curtis not only guided students to a perfect resume, but also helped them build confidence through clear and concise, step-by-step instructions.

“You’re doing a great job,” she told the students.

Curtis chose to become a teacher at an early age, helping her intellectually disabled sister. Today, she also works with special education students at the high school, helping them learn computer skills needed for independence.

She has worked for the school system for the past 12 years as an elementary teacher, interventionist and in her current role.

Curtis, like Hughes, was surprised to learn she was a Teacher of the Year finalist.

“This was really a big surprise,” she said. “It’s been very humbling.”

Curtis and Hughes will attend a special ceremony hosted by the Alabama State Board of Education and the Alabama State Department of Education at 6 p.m., Wednesday, May 8, at the RSA Plaza Terrace in Montgomery, where the 2019-20 Alabama Teacher of the Year will be announced.

From the 16 finalists, a Final Four consisting of two teachers from the Elementary group and two from the Secondary group is selected. One of those four will become Teacher of the Year.

The Alabama Teacher of the Year spends the majority of the school year serving as a full-time ambassador for education and the teaching profession, participating in workshops to various groups.

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