Georgia pre-K Teachers of the Year: We do important work and love it

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Alaina Jones is Georgia’s pre-K program 2022-2023 Teacher of the Year for private schools. She teaches at Akers Academy in Cumming. She shares the honor with Shannon Gibson, who is the Teacher of the Year for public schools. Gibson teaches at Baldwin Elementary School in Baldwin, Georgia.

In this column, Jones shares her and Gibson’s paths to pre-K classrooms, as well as why Georgia’s pre-K program is so essential.

By Alaina Jones

Shannon Gibson and I both serve as Georgia’s pre-K program Teachers of the Year for the 2022-2023 school year. She is the public school winner, representing Baldwin Elementary School in Baldwin, and I am the private school winner, representing Akers Academy in Cumming. These are our stories of how we found our way to pre-K classrooms and why we stayed.

The summer of 2009 wasn’t the best time for finding a teaching job in Georgia. Most school systems had hiring freezes in effect for K-12, but if you were lucky, you might find an opening in Georgia’s nationally recognized pre-K program. You know, just to get your foot in the door. Why would anyone plan an entire career around our youngest learners?

Shannon was fresh out of college with dual degrees in special ed and early childhood education. She had taught third through fifth grades during her student-teaching and assumed she’d land there for a career. There was nothing available in K-12, so she accepted a pre-K teacher position, which eventually led her to her current school.

Credit: Courtesy Photo

Credit: Courtesy Photo

I had just moved to Georgia. Even with an extensive education background, I couldn’t find a teaching job available. So, I became Lady Liberty … literally … in full costume, torch, and all, in a marketing role with a tax preparation company. One of those friendly faces you often see along a busy commercial corridor waving you into a local business.

Part of that job included visiting local schools, in costume, and singing a song about the famous statue in New York Harbor. During a visit to Akers Academy, I finished the presentation, changed out of the costume and told the director I would really prefer teaching to Lady Liberty. Gratefully, I was hired on the spot.

Now, some 14 years later, we both find ourselves being recognized as Georgia’s pre-K program Teachers of the Year. We both recognize this as a great honor … amazing really to be recognized statewide for something we already enjoy doing. The honor comes with a $3,000 award for each of us; $3,000 for our classrooms; and $1,500 for our schools to hire substitutes when we are away representing our Teacher of the Year roles. For the record, I bought a smart TV with my prize while Shannon used it for an anniversary trip with her husband and some left over for savings.

We survived a vigorous process that identified six finalists and then selected us based on a panel interview, group video, and classroom observations — all during the first few weeks of school, not that we’re complaining.

What we really want you to know about Georgia pre-K is its value and high quality. This is the 30th year of Georgia’s pre-K, paid for by the Georgia Lottery, and we can now talk with students who have benefited from both pre-K and the Hope Scholarship. Gov. Zell Miller, an educator himself, was quite the visionary for putting all this together in 1993.

What does pre-K mean for our youngest learners? Just picture a house under construction in your neighborhood. They don’t start with the roof, or the kitchen, but with a foundation that supports all that you can imagine in that new home.

Credit: Courtesy Photo

Credit: Courtesy Photo

Georgia’s pre-K program is first and foremost the best way to prepare children for kindergarten; however, research shows that it benefits students well into elementary school. We both see students starting kindergarten without the benefit of pre-K and the results are obvious. Children without pre-K miss this incredible opportunity for personal growth, independence, critical thinking, connections through math and science, group work, and individual work that builds a lifelong love of learning. There’s some heavy-duty instruction coming their way in kindergarten … and pre-K ensures they are prepared.

Our pre-K students thrive in an environment where we can teach to the needs of each child, outside the standardized testing they will encounter for the next 13 years. They learn it’s OK to make mistakes, since it is often by trial and error that we truly learn.

As Georgia’s pre-K Teachers of the Year, we have seen firsthand the support given by Gov. Brian Kemp and the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning in response to the pandemic. Since 2021, DECAL has paid three installments of POWER payments (Providing Our Workforce Essential Recognition). That’s close to $155 million from the American Rescue Act. Now they are repurposing the program to POWER-ED, which will help the early child care workforce obtain credentials and degrees.

Like most industries, there is a staffing shortage in early childhood education, but these resources, along with the over $2 billion invested by DECAL in child care programs across the state, have helped us weather the storm. In addition, we appreciate Gov. Kemp and the Georgia General Assembly including $2,000 raises for Georgia’s pre-K teachers and assistant teachers in this year’s budget. This goes a long way in recruiting and retaining the outstanding talent that make up this program.

Thank you for the honor and privilege of teaching your children. If you could see the promise and potential that we see in them each day, you would feel much more positive about the future of our nation … and the world.

The application for Pre-K Teacher of the Year for the 2023-2024 school year is available now on the DECAL website home page at Completed applications must be submitted no later than 5 p.m. on March 24. Finalists will be announced in May, with the winners announced in the early fall, just in time for Georgia’s Pre-K Week, observed this year Oct. 2-6.