If this year’s Readers Choice Most Outstanding Teacher Casey Tatum could go back in time, she knows exactly what day she’d travel to — March 13, 2020. It was the last day she was with her students in the classroom, and the last day she’d see them.
After that date, Tatum’s Stilson Elementary School first grade students would be sheltering in place in their homes, just like their teacher, all due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“If I could go back to that day, I would have made that day completely different,” she said. “Life can change so drastically. This pandemic has definitely reminded me that I take life for granted and that everything can be taken from you in a split second.”
Since that last day in the classroom together, Tatum says that a group of first and second grade teachers from their school came together and created a Facebook page for parents. Through that page, parents can view videos of Tatum and the other teachers providing instruction and activities for students to keep them engaged in online learning from home. Bulloch County has provided ELA and math packets for students as well, Tatum said.
Tatum has 20 students in her classroom, and she has done her best to encourage her students despite the distance between them.
“Every child loves to hear that they’re doing a great job. Right now, it’s a little more difficult to do that with virtual teaching. My students’ parents have been sending me pictures of their work on our first and second grade Facebook lessons page, and on my Class Dojo app that I use. I make sure to reply back with encouraging messages and feedback,” she said.
Tatum says her students each bring her joy in so many ways.
“They are all different, but they have so many things in common as well. All of them are sweet, caring, and they make me laugh every day,” she said.
Tatum, now in her fifth year of teaching, says she has always wanted to be a teacher.
“I have always enjoyed being around children and I want to be a positive role model in their lives,” she said.
She didn’t have to look far for inspiration herself.
“Both of my grandmothers were teachers. I have always wanted to be a teacher ever since I can remember. My grandparents, along with other family members, would buy me teacher supplies and books so I could teach my ‘imaginary’ students in my playroom,” she said.
Tatum completed her student teaching in a second grade classroom, and calls it a great experience. She says she thought she wanted to teach second grade forever, but “little did I know, God had different plans for me.”
“My principal at the time told me I was moving to first grade. I have taught first grade for four years now, and I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else,” she said.
Tatum says she’s not particularly worried about her students being negatively impacted by the time away from the classroom this year.
“I feel this time of uncertainty will be beneficial for students in many ways. Yes, school is important, but during this time, students are able to spend more time with their families and enjoying doing things they love to do. I’m not worried about students ‘missing out’ on standards we didn’t get a chance to teach this year,” she said. “When we return to school, I know teachers will do their best to catch students up on content that wasn’t taught. What’s important right now is that our students are safe, healthy and happy.”
The parent-teacher relationship is just as crucial now as it was before school closed down, Tatum says.
“No matter what the circumstances are, parent-teacher relationships are extremely important. I believe education should be a ‘team’ effort between teachers and parents,” she said.
Tatum says another relationship has been very important for her during this time — her relationship with her teaching peers.
“My team is my rock. Social distancing has not stopped us from communicating and keeping up with each other’s personal lives. We talk almost every day through text or Zoom. We are taking this situation day by day and communication with one another on the types of resources we want to provide our students during this time,” she said.
When asked her goals for the next five to 10 years, Tatum is firm on one thing — she wants to remain at Stilson.
“Stilson is my home. Our school definitely has a ‘family’ type atmosphere. I could not do my job without them,” she said.
Tatum says she doesn’t believe that there is a specific checklist of qualities for an outstanding teacher. Instead, she believes that the outstanding teachers she’s known have shared the same qualities.
“They genuinely care about their students and strive to have a positive and strong relationship with each of them,” she said.
As for being named Most Outstanding Teacher herself, Tatum says she’s honored, but shocked.
“I know many teachers in the county that are very deserving of this award. Receiving this award is affirmation that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be in my career, and I’m so grateful for that,” she said.
Tatum names her parents as her heroes, and says they are the reason she is the woman she is today.
“They have always provided for me, supported me, and continue to do so today. They’re the first people I call when I need advice, or just need someone to talk to,” she said.
She also thanks her family, friends, school administrators, coworkers, and her students and their parents, along with everyone who has supported her in her life and career.
“All of you have impacted my life in so many ways, and have helped to make me the teacher I am today,” she said.