ZEBULON — When middle schoolers at East Wake Academy started their lunch period one day last week in 7th-grade science teacher Julie Garrett’s classroom, a line formed at the microwave and another formed around Garrett.
One student asked her about documenting a volunteer project he’s been working on. Another had a question about an afterschool activity. One student forgot his lunch and needed Garrett’s help.
Her ability to handle the stresses of a classroom full of preteens is one reason she was named East Wake Academy’s Teacher of the Year and is a finalist for North Carolina’s Charter Teacher of the Year award.
“When you’re in (her classroom), she’s teaching (and) interacting,” East Wake Academy headmaster Stephen Gay said. “It’s hard to teach someone to do that. She just has that connection ... she knows what buttons to push to make students work better. She has the ability to see the kids for who they really are.”
Keeping the ember alive
Garrett graduated from East Carolina University and began teaching in Rocky Mount. Her husband had to relocate for work and she found teaching jobs at schools around the state. When her second child was born, Garrett took 10 years off from teaching to be a stay-at-home mom.
Six years ago, she came back to teaching as a language arts teacher at East Wake Academy. She’s only moved subject areas since then.
”I took a language arts position when I came (to East Wake Academy) because that’s what was available,” Garrett said. “However I quickly found out I was missing that science connection.” After teaching language arts for two years, she got her science certification and said that’s where she’s found her passion.
“The things that keep you motivated in teaching are those letters you get from the student who is now graduating from Dartmouth ... that says 'Who else but you would teach me how to use a pteri dish in fourth grade?'” Garrett said. “It’s those connections with the students that keep that ember alive for teaching.”
Making a subject “real-life”
Working with lab equipment in fourth grade might seem like a fast-track science curriculum but it's what sets Garrett apart.
Last week's science lessons with her seventh-graders focused on genetic pedigree charts, a concept that North Carolina Public Schools requires seventh graders to learn.
In Garrett's class though, students have to develop a pedigree chart from a song about a family. After finalizing the chart, they'll research genetic diseases and see how those diseases might travel through the pedigrees they created.
“All students are talented, but we’re talented or have skills in different areas,” Garrett said.
In addition to encouraging her students to go above and beyond curriculum requirement, Gay said Garrett does the same. To stay current in the science field, she’s gone outside the classroom to practice the application of the subject area.
Garrett took certified nursing assistant (CNA) classes at Wake Tech and participated in some hospital rotations.
“She wants to be proficient in her field,” Gay said. “(She wants) to make her subject real-life.”
In addition to her time as a CNA, Garrett works with the student council association and athletic boosters at East Wake Academy. She also coordinates the school science fair, which can be a huge undertaking, Gay said.
To become the state’s Charter Teacher of the Year, Garrett will be interviewed by the North Carolina Office of Charter Schools. The office received a packet of information about Garett, which will be considered with her interview.
From there, the office will identify two finalists and then observe those teachers’ classrooms before making a decision.
The entire process should be completed sometime in January.
Hankerson: 919-829-4826; Twitter: @easternwakenews