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Teacher of the year takes learning outside
Stephanie Hodges countywide honoree; Joy Adams runner-up
Portal Elementary School STEM Lab teacher Stephanie Hodges, left, cracks a smile as assistant principal Kent Brannen brags on her during Tuesday's Bulloch County Teacher of the Year banquet. Hodges was named the overall Bulloch County Teacher of the Year.

On her way to becoming Bulloch County Teacher of the Year, Portal Elementary School STEM lab teacher Stephanie Hodges was named 2019-20 Georgia DNR Conservation Teacher of the Year for her efforts to bring outdoor learning into children’s lives.

Bulloch County’s school-selected teachers of the year from 14 campuses were saluted Tuesday night in a banquet hosted by the Statesboro Herald and the Bulloch County Schools. Parker’s Fueling the Community program and NFP Insurance Brokerage & Consulting provided funding for cash awards totaling more than $3,000 to winning teachers.

First runner-up honors went to Langston Chapel Middle School reading intervention teacher Joy Adams, and three other countywide finalists were announced.

These are officially the 2021 teachers of the year, chosen far in advance so that Hodges can represent the county in May at the Georgia Teacher of the Year competition, whose winner will compete for the national honor the following January.


Winning speech

 “Growing up, I spent most of my weekday afternoons and weekends outside,” Hodges began a draft of the speech she would give as a potential representative of Georgia teachers. “I helped my daddy on the farm pulling irrigation pipe through corn taller than I was, picking up leftover corn behind the combine to feed the pigs. …

“I spent time fishing, hunting and camping. …,” her speech continues.  “I also spent my fair share of time building forts and making mud pies. … I very seldom watched TV.”

This is how the teacher who grew up on a farm near the Savannah River in Screven County frames her quest to counteract what some authors have characterized as “Nature Deficit Disorder.” While citing studies that contrast American children’s daily minutes of outdoor time to their many hours of screen time, Hodges promotes the use of technology by young “citizen scientists” in the study of nature.

In one project, Portal Elementary students researched birds and the different foods they eat before constructing bird feeders of various kinds, suited t to different species, from recyclable materials. The children then used a Project Feeder Watch App to document bird sightings. Web-based research and tools such as digital cameras factor in many of her lessons.

Her latest, ongoing project, the Monarch Recovery Garden, involves students from kindergarten through fifth grade, their teachers, the school’s counselor and media specialist and art teacher, experts from plant nurseries, and of course, monarch butterflies. Expect to read more about that later.


She lands grants

Beginning in 2002, when Hodges was awarded an Outdoor Classroom Grant by the Georgia Department of Education, she has brought more than $36,000 in grants to her school, including $12,000 from the Bulloch County Foundation for Public Education.

“She has always come up with some of the coolest activities I’ve seen in education. …,” PES Assistant Principal Kent Brannen said during the banquet. “Today we had the DNR coming down from Atlanta to bring her a check for a thousand dollars. I call her the Grant Queen. She is constantly writing grants and getting the activities and materials, keeping the kids engaged.”

The $1,000 grant came with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Conservation Teacher of the Year designation.

After teaching one year at Sardis Girard Alexander Elementary School in Burke County, Hodges has spent the rest of her 28-year career so far teaching in the Bulloch County Schools, first at Julia P. Bryant Elementary, and since 2000 at Portal Elementary.

She was a regular classroom teacher before becoming the school’s STEM, or “Science, Technology, Engineering, Math,” lab teacher three years ago.  This is her third time as Portal Elementary School Teacher of the Year, having been selected by her peers previously for 2003-04 and 2017-18.


Adams runner-up

Joy Adams, first runner-up for 2021 Bulloch County Teacher of the Year, was 2014 Evans County Teacher of the Year before being hired by the Bulloch County Schools. She has taught 24 years thus far, including the last four at Langston Chapel Middle School. She was teaching eighth-grade Georgia studies before LCMS Principal Dr. Eric Carlyle asked her to teach a reading intervention class this year.

“She jumped on the opportunity to do that and felt from the beginning that … these struggling readers are going to become better readers,” Carlyle said. “She just claimed that from the onset.”

Adams is pioneering the use here of a program called READ 180, intended to raise the reading levels of struggling readers by two years or more.


Five finalists

As the overall honoree, Hodges received a $2,000 “grant,” while Adams, as runner-up, received $500.

The other three finalists were Brooklet Elementary School Teacher of the Year Meredith Jones, who teaches first grade; Mill Creek Elementary School Teacher of the Millie Boykin, who was teaching third grade when selected by peers at MCES but who now teaches fifth grade at Brooklet Elementary; and Southeast Bulloch Middle School Teacher of the Year Dr. Patia C. Rountree, teaching sixth-grade math. They each received $250.

Hayley Greene, Bulloch County Schools public relations and marketing specialist, referred to the awards as grants but also informed the teachers that they do not have to use the money for classroom purposes. They are free to spend it on themselves.


School honorees

Other school-level teachers of the year are Julia P. Bryant Elementary School visual arts teacher Elizabeth Anne Harrison, Mattie Lively Elementary School counselor Christine Ballard, Nevils Elementary School second-grade teacher Melissa W. Williams, Portal Middle High School sixth-grade teacher Anna A. Spence, Sallie Zetterower Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Misty Anderson, Statesboro High School English teacher Jennifer C. Calhoun, Stilson Elementary School third-grade teacher Kascie Oliver, William James Middle School math teacher Racheal Moran and Southeast Bulloch High School math teacher Kristen Barnhill.

 “One of the extreme joys of my job is reading all of your applications every year. …,” Greene said to the teachers.  “I hear a lot of the negative in my job and deal with crisis situations, but it’s like a treasure when I get your applications and read all that you do.”

Greene, who coordinates the local phase of the recognition program, showed emotion as she said that she is encouraged by these teachers and wants to be like them.

School-level nominees completed applications with information about themselves and answers to essay questions, as well as a model speech. With identifying information removed, these were scored by a panel of community residents and retired educators.

One school does not have a 2021 honoree, since the nominated teacher moved out of the county.

Hodges’ application for the state competition, administered by the Georgia Department of Education, is due by Dec. 2


Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.


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