Another Great Georgia Teacher: Her classroom hums with activity

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky returns today with another installment of his "Great Georgia Teacher" series.

Today, he tells us about Bynikini Frazier of the Savannah-Chatham Public Schools.

By Peter Smagorinsky

Credit: Maureen Downey

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Credit: Maureen Downey

Educators often say it takes a good five years or so to develop any sort of teaching mastery. Heck, I’ve been at it since the mid-1970s and am still working at it. Some people get there a lot faster.

Among them is Bynikini Frazier of the Savannah-Chatham Public Schools, where in February she was named the system’s Teacher of the Year at the tender age of 27.

Bynikini teaches first grade at Sarah Mills Hodge Elementary School. She meets a profile often seen among people who go into teaching: Her mother and grandmother were teachers, and, as she has said, "It's in my blood. I was one of those kids who played school with my dolls and my bears. I gave them homework and detention. . . . I remember as a student here at Hodge in fifth grade deciding I wanted to be a teacher, and from then on strived to become that."

Little did those dolls and bears know how lucky they were to be this precocious woman’s first students, homework, detentions, and all.

Like so many people who become teachers, Bynikini was an outstanding student throughout her education: Valedictorian of the Savannah Arts Academy’s Class of 2005, summa cum laude University of Georgia graduate in seven semesters, and earner of a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Armstrong State University.

She shares another trait with so many teachers I’ve met in Oklahoma and Georgia since becoming a teacher educator in 1990: In seeking guidance for how to give her life meaning, she said, “I prayed for God to take me to the students who needed me the most. I felt God was telling me that this is where I needed to be.”

Teaching under challenging circumstances benefits from belief in a higher purpose, whether from the Almighty or other source. I should emphasize I am personally not religious at all, and so am not making this point to advance religion’s role in public education.

What I do find so striking is the way in which a deeply inspired faith can produce a committed professional whose life is devoted to good works such as teaching, even as many others have arrived at the same destination through pathways paved with other kinds of beliefs. “I think if God could give me a gift, this has to be the greatest gift: to come back to a school that has helped shape and mold me to what I am,” she said.

Great teachers, especially in urban situations, are often depicted as lone creative geniuses who inspire kids through unconventional methods: Jaime Escalante, Erin Gruwell, LouAnne Johnson, and others whose stories have made for successful adaptation to film. In reality, most teachers rely on mentors, colleagues, and others to help them get established in the classroom.

At Hodge, which Bynikini attended as a girl, she found inspiration in the models provided by former teachers who instilled in her a love of learning.

A love of learning is often fueled by passionate engagement, and Bynikini infuses her class with fun, high expectations for academics and conduct, singing and creative thinking. A dancer, she brings such active forms of learning as creative dance into the classroom, just one of many ways she keeps her students on their toes.

As reported in articles written about the 2015 Georgia Teacher of the Year competition (which post-dates the award year), for which she was a finalist, “her passion for teaching isn’t something that can be easily conjured up — it is a blessing and a calling that has an indelible impact on some of the neediest students.”

Her principal, Yvette Wells, summarized her qualities well: “Bynikini’s personality, style and energy set her apart. She is the teacher that parents request for their children because she is willing to do whatever it takes to reach every child no matter what their level, or who they are or where they come from.”

Bynikini does more than just love her kids and keep them hopping, not to mention hoping. She was recently selected for the UGA Class of 2014 40 Under 40 , a designation accorded the university's highest young achievers, and serves on the university's College of Education Board of Visitors, an important advisory group to Dean Kennedy.

She was also recently one of seven teachers who won Georgia's Innovation Teaching Competition, a STEM instruction program available through federal Race to the Top financing. Whether you like RTTT or not, it's a high honor to be selected in this fierce competition.

So, what does STEM instruction look like in first grade? My first image is of kids grimacing while laboring through paper-and-pencil problems, with one eye on the clock and the other on the window. In keeping with her emphasis on engaged learning, however, Bynikini teaches science through hands-on engagement, such as when she secured an observation beehive from the Savannah Bee Company and the Bee Cause Project.

Said Bynikini, “These are students who, over the course of their lives, will probably never come in contact with a hive, so this is really a blessing. We’re going to use this for art and writing and science and research. Instead of reading about it in a book or looking at a picture, we have an actual hive and live bees right here. I’m so excited.”

The hive is secured within a revolving glass case, equipped with a tube that allows the bees to head outdoors and return to educate the kids about their lives. These bees include a Hawaiian queen and 25,000 workers and drones.

To prepare for its arrival, Bynikini’s students learned about the lives of honey bees, including their social organization and honey-production processes. The picture with this essay shows Bynikini dressed as a bee, with her kids also in Happy Bee Day headbands, ready to begin their scientific investigations.

Learning science from a classroom beehive — I like that idea. Thanks to teachers like Bynikini Frazier, inner city kids are getting attuned to nature and learning science through direct observation, recording, measurement, interpretation, and delight. That sounds like great teaching to me, and it's yours to follow on Twitter at @msbfrazier and to read her class blog.