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Ball Ground Elementary School STEM Academy teacher Joy Brandon Silk '00 has teaching in her genes and nerdiness in her heart.
The self-described nerd says she found her dream job with the Cherokee County School District’s creation of STEM Academies and her role as a STEM lab and AIM gifted program teacher… and Monday’s announcement that she is CCSD’s Teacher of the Year validated her passion and her path.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” she said, wiping away tears, as she talked about her love of teaching children not just about science, technology, engineering and math, but also the importance of problem-solving, communication and that “failure is OK.” “I love technology… I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t in CCSD.”
The District’s Teacher of the Year is selected by a panel of community leaders, who evaluate applications from each school’s Teacher of the Year. The school winners are selected by their peers.
Knowing Ms. Silk’s background and hearing her heart, Monday’s presentation by Cherokee County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank R. Petruzielo to Ms. Silk seems as inevitable as a vinegar and baking soda volcanic eruption at the science fair.
“You’re exactly what the doctor ordered for a STEM Academy,” Dr. Petruzielo said, praising her expertise and willingness to share it with students and colleagues alike.
Ms. Silk now is a second-generation CCSD Teacher of the Year, following in the footsteps of her mother, Judy Brandon, a teacher at the Hasty ES and Oak Grove ES Fine Arts Academies, who won the honor more than a decade ago at R.M. Moore Elementary School. Her father, Nathan, was Dean of Students at then Reinhardt College during most of her childhood, which was lived on its campus amid young scholars and professors.
She spent those afternoons instructing her Cabbage Patch Kid dolls and teddy bears using old teacher’s editions, and recalls a wonderful Christmas when she received a favorite present of buckets of chalk and a chalkboard line ruler and eraser.
“As a student, I was a classic nerd. I loved everything about school and wanted to emulate every teacher I ever had. I participated in every club I was eligible for and was probably called (rightfully so) teacher’s pet and all matter of other ‘choice’ terms by my peers. I didn’t care. I’ve always felt secure in who I am and what I enjoy,” Ms. Silk said. “As a high school student at Cherokee High, I wasn’t so confident in that label and swore to my parents I would never be a teacher when I grew up. I can remember them both smirking at me each time I declared it. I’m so glad I followed my gut and went into education – I’ve never regretted that decision.”
Her students are glad she did, too.
“This is really good,” fourth-grader Shiv Dutta said moments after the announcement was made, recalling memories of robotics lessons and Ms. Silk’s kindness. “I bet she will be Teacher of the Year of the United States.”
Ms. Silk will be honored in December at the District’s annual Teacher of the Year Banquet sponsored by Northside Hospital-Cherokee and Credit Union of Georgia. She also will be entered as the District’s nominee for 2016 Georgia Teacher of the Year, which will be announced in the spring.
“It’s an honor for Joy and an honor for the school,” Principal Dr. Keith Ingram said after the announcement, sharing that he was her former soccer coach at Cherokee High, noting that her team spirit is inspiring. “She never says no… no matter how crazy or hair-brained the idea may be.”
Ms. Silk had spent the morning hard at work on her latest project: setting up a “fab lab” for the school. She’s transforming an unused classroom into a laboratory of fabrication materials for students to use for STEM projects… everything from empty egg cartons to straws will find new life once re-engineered by the hands of students.
Ms. Silk began her teaching career in 2000 at Boston Elementary, where she worked as an Early Intervention Program teacher and technology teacher, and then taught at Hasty Elementary and R.M. Moore Elementary before joining Ball Ground ES STEM Academy in 2012 in her current role. She earned her bachelor’s degree in education from Reinhardt University followed by a master’s degree in early childhood education and an education specialist degree in curriculum and instruction, both from Piedmont College.
She mentors new teachers, has served as advisor or coach for everything from the school kickball team to academic bowl team, teaches courses at Reinhardt University, presents workshops at State conferences and wins grants to start projects like the science lab at R.M. Moore Elementary.
Ms. Silk, who has two children attending Ball Ground ES STEM Academy in the third and sixth grades, during the summer break commits her time to serving students in other ways… delivering MUST Summer Lunches to students who otherwise would go hungry and organizing volunteers to provide school supplies, clothes and other services to needy children at the Give a Kid a Chance events. She takes her children along so they, too, learn a lesson.
“One of the biggest blessings for me, personally, is to see my kids serve their classmates and for them to see just how some children live who sit next to them every day in class. It changes their perceptions of education and opportunity,” she said.
Her strong belief in the potential of every child to succeed has been bolstered by spending her career teaching in Title I schools, which have a higher percentage of students from low-income households, and watching them flourish.
“STEM is a great equalizer,” she said. “These kids do great when they can get their hands on the project. STEM gives every student a chance to be successful.”
If you take a peek into Ms. Silk’s class, you’ll never see the same scene twice. One day, it’s little ones using QR codes to track down the Gingerbread Man on a school scavenger hunt. The next day, it’s an older group developing real-life inventions to solve engineering problems posed by the Principal. Or creating iMovie book review trailers for less popular books in the media center. Or video-conferencing with NASA scientists and astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
Ms. Silk said she hopes her students are inspired to make a difference in the world and that they remember her as being happy to teach them every day.
“I mean what other job is there in the world where you get to come in each day to something new and exciting and your clients are always enthusiastic? What other profession reaps rewards years later when someone still remembers something you said or did?” she said. “I can’t think of one that gives such satisfaction and compensation.”
Article by Barbara Jacoby, Director, Public Information, Communications and Partnerships; photos by Carrie McGowan, Coordinator, Community Relations and Publications; both work for the Cherokee County School District
L. Eugene Norton is a dedicated Reinhardt Family member. He met his wife, Yvonne Harris Norton at Reinhardt, and their daughter, Jill Norton Oliver, is also a Reinhardt graduate. A former teacher, coach, principal, county school superintendent and state Department of Education official, he has shared his expertise with Reinhardt education students as an adjunct faculty member for more than 14 years.
In addition, he has served Reinhardt on the Alumni Board of Governors and the Action Planning Committee, and in 1981, he was named the Distinguished Alumnus of the Year.
To show the institutions's gratitude for his 46 years of college and community involvement and leadership, The Gene Norton Scholarship in Education has been established. The Price School of Education (PSOE) Alumni Association has set a $20,000 goal to endow the Norton scholarship; once established, it will generate almost $1,000 a year in aid for an education student who is at least a sophomore and has a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher.
"Gene's positive influence is reflected in the many Reinhardt graduates who have gone on to teach others, and his legacy will now help aspiring education students for years to come with this scholarship," said Brian Hightower, PSOE Alumni Association Co-Chair.
If you would like to honor Gene Norton by contributing to this scholarship, please contact the Reinhardt Development Office at 770-720-5507.
The Price School of Education, PSOE, Alumni Association is formed to promote the advancement of the interests of Reinhardt University and, more specifically, the Price School of Education; and, to establish closer fellowship among the alumni, friends and former students of Reinhardt University and the Price School of Education.