Leslie Hughes

Walter M. Kennedy Elementary School first-grade teacher Leslie Hughes made the Final Four in the 2019-20 Alabama Teacher of the Year contest. 

PELL CITY – Don’t feel sorry about Walter M. Kennedy Elementary School’s Leslie Hughes falling just short of being tapped as the 2019-20 Alabama Teacher of the Year, because she is exactly where she wants to be – in the classroom.

“I’m glad to get back to teaching,” Hughes said Friday. “This is where my spirit is – in the classroom.”

Hughes and Pell City High School Building Technology Coordinator Valarie Curtis were selected as representatives from Alabama State Board of Education District VI in the Teacher of the Year contest. Hughes was selected as the District VI Elementary School Teacher of the Year, and Curtis was the District VI High School Teacher of the Year nominee.

Both teachers made it to the Sweet 16 in the Teacher of the Year competition. Hughes went a step further, advancing to the Final Four.

On Wednesday, the winner was announced at a special ceremony. Ana Carolina Behel, who teaches English language development at Weeden Elementary in the Florence City school system, received the honor.

“She is so nice,” Hughes said. “She is going to be a great representative for teachers.”

Behel will serve as the out-of-the-classroom ambassador, traveling across the state and speaking on behalf of Alabama teachers.

And Hughes is OK with that.

“Just to make it there was a real honor,” she said. “The experience was really inspiring. To have the top educators all in one room was something special.”

Hughes said her family was able to attend the Teacher of the Year ceremony.

It was only a week ago she was interviewed by a 15-member selection committee.

“They have the process down to a fine art,” Hughes said. From the school, to the school system, to the district and finally to the state, everything worked smoothly, she said.

“It was one of the most rigorous processes,” Hughes added.

The first-grade teacher seemed happy to be back in the classroom Friday, and so were her students and co-workers.

Blue Bell Creameries, one of the Alabama Teacher of the Year program sponsors, delivered ice cream to Hughes, her students and the faculty at Kennedy Elementary.

“Their ice cream is so good,” Hughes said. “They also gave me a cooler full of ice cream.”

According to the Alabama Department of Education, Hughes and Curtis 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 program, according to officials with the state school board.

Pell City Superintendent Dr. Michael Barber said he believes this was the first time two teachers from the same school system reached the Top 16.

He said it was also the first time the Pell City school system has ever had a teacher reach the Final Four.