Like many Teacher of the Year winners, Mrs. Susan Curtis of Oak Hill Middle School was not expecting to win this year’s award because she knows that most teachers across the Baldwin School District are giving their entire heart and soul to the job. So what would make her any different? However, the Teacher of the Year award is special because it’s nominated and voted on by peers of the same school, followed by the district, so the announcement of her winning came as an abrupt shock to her. How does a single teacher stand out among a school of exceptional teachers?
“When I was young, I was never going to be a teacher,” Curtis said, although both her parents were educators. “I hated school, but being animated and performing comes naturally to me.” When Curtis had children of her own, she began substituting and found the job easy to walk into. “The performative parts of it come easy for me,” Curtis said, “the harder part is understanding who kids are and how kids are. That’s harder. A lot harder, actually.”
Curtis began by teaching English Language Arts and math. However, it was science where she truly found her gift. “Science gives kids the tools to explore whatever it is they want to explore,” Curtis said, “whether those are big ideas, big societal challenges we have, and I get excited about that because you can use science to do things like change the world, literally.”
“Because science is so interactive that it gets kids busy working on a task together, so they forget that they’re different, or that they come from different backgrounds. And so you bring different people together on a common task that they feel like is play, and they tend to have a good time, and that helps them break down barriers.”
For Curtis, one of the greatest draws of adding new sciences to the landscape is watching students come to understand how sixth grade Earth Science and seventh grade Life Science fold into eighth grade Physical Science. “Just watching kids get to do some hands-on stuff and get excited about it, that’s always a good moment,” she said.
The physical stuff is also a great way to attract students who aren’t invested emotionally in the sciences in general. “Usually, it takes about a week in my classroom,” she said, “because the majority of science is play. Science is putting a racecar on a track to see how fast it can go. Science is mixing stuff together to see what happens. We do hands-on multiple times every week, and I’ve never had a kid fail my class because they learn very quickly that science is something you do. It’s a physical thing. So, once they see that, they become successful, and they have fun!”
Susan Curtis has taught in multiple districts throughout Georgia and in North Carolina, mostly within urban and suburban areas. Baldwin County is the most rural district that she’s taught in. She believes that science can help bridge cultural divisions, “because science is so interactive that it gets kids busy working on a task together, so they forget that they’re different, or that they come from different backgrounds. And so you bring different people together on a common task that they feel like is play, and they tend to have a good time, and that helps them break down barriers.”
She makes it her practice to create an environment that instructs the whole student in a way that they enjoy, and that is precisely what makes her stand out among her exceptional peers, and makes her Oak Hill Middle School’s Teacher of the Year.