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Teacher of the Year finalists announced

Tamahia Benton, of Liberty Middle School, Cecily Bullock, of Alcovy High School and Jason Smith, of Newton High School, were named the finalists for Newton County School System’s 2017 Teacher of the Year Friday.

The three finalists were named from the school system’s 23 teachers of the year after a panel of judges read over essays and conducted interviews. The three earned the highest point totals from the essays and interviews.

Friday morning, Newton County School System (NCSS) Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey and other administrators surprised each of the finalists with flowers and balloons in their classrooms today to make the special announcement that they were finalists for Newton County Teacher of the Year. Family members of the teachers were also included in the surprise visits.

On Wednesday, Sept. 28, the Teacher of the Year selection committee will watch each of the three finalists in their classroom, and the teacher with the highest combined score on the essay, interview and observation will be announced as the 2017 Newton County Teacher of the Year during a ceremony at Newton High School on Thursday, Oct. 6 at 4:45 p.m.

Tanahia Benton
Liberty Middle School

Benton decided to be a teacher after seeing the tremendous impact her former teachers made in her life. From elementary school all the way through college, her teachers recognized her potential and guided her as she moved from grade school to high school and beyond. No one in her family attended college but her teachers encouraged her to not only pursue a degree in education but also insisted that she further her studies in graduate school. As a result, Benton earned a bachelor of arts in elementary education from Xavier University in 1999 and a master of arts in curriculum and instruction in 2000. She has also completed all requirements but the dissertation for an education specialist degree in educational leadership from Capella University.

Benton began her career in 2000 in Louisiana, teaching third, fourth, and later sixth grade. After moving to Georgia, she worked for the DeKalb County School System at Medlock Elementary and later Browns Mill Elementary. Benton joined the Newton County School System as an eighth-grade English language arts instructor at Liberty Middle School in 2013 and has been there ever since. Her professional memberships include the International Reading Association, American Educational Research Association, and the Georgia Association of Educators.

Education, spirituality, and service are all important to Benton and have played an important role in her life as she continually pursues opportunities to influence the lives of children beyond her classroom. She is a parent volunteer for Girl Scout Troop No. 25525 in Covington and also serves as a Youth Advisor, Youth Choir Sponsor, and co-sponsor of the Summer Enrichment Program at Good Hope Baptist Church.

“I am honored and humbled to be chosen as a finalist for the county’s Teacher of the Year award,” said Benton. “Teaching is a work of the heart, and every day that I walk into my classroom, I hope that my students see my heart and know that I just want the best for them. I've always wanted to become a teacher and I am elated to be doing what I love.”

Cecily Bullock
Alcovy High School

Bullock never considered the possibility of a career in education. As a student, sitting in class, she watched and noted that teachers worked long hours for extra pay, spent considerable time away from their families to help their students and they didn’t seem to get the recognition they deserved. In her mind there were certainly plenty of careers that had to be better than teaching. That all changed in her senior year, when she met her high school biology teacher who went above and beyond for her students — hosting mock tests on weekends, staying late after school to answer questions, and being there to give advice or just listen if students needed to talk. Meeting that one teacher is all it took for Bullock to find her focus and pursue a career in education. She earned a bachelor of science in agriculture from the University of Georgia in 2012 and is currently working on a master in agricultural leadership from UGA.

Bullock began her teaching career as an agriculture instructor at Alcovy High School in 2012 and she has worked there ever since. She is a member of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the Georgia Vocational Agricultural Teachers Association, the National Association of Agricultural Educators, and the Georgia Association of Career and Technical Education. She participates in the Newton County School System Teacher Mentor Program, serves as the chair of both the Alcovy High School graduation committee and homecoming committee and is also the lead FFA Advisor at the school.

She serves on the board of directors for the Piedmont Cattlemen’s Association, and is a member of the Farm Bureau and Young Farmers, where she volunteers her time to assist with several local events, including The Young Farmer’s Tractor Day on the Square and the Farm Bureau Elementary School Farm Days. She also developed the Tiger Pantry at Alcovy High School, which serves as a food bank and clothing closet to help meet the needs of students and families in the area who may not have everything they need. Through the Tiger Pantry, care packages are sent home twice a week to eight families in the area. They also create relief boxes for families that have experienced tragedies such as house fires and deaths.

“I'm extremely excited and honored to be named a top three finalist for Newton County Teacher of the Year,” said Bullock. “I work with some of the best teachers and administrators in the state of Georgia at Alcovy High School and it is such a privilege to be recognized for doing something that I love. I have a passion for agriculture and hope that my passion is evident through my teaching and interactions with my students. I appreciate Alcovy High and Newton County for giving me the opportunity to represent them and showcase the great things going on in our school and community.”

Jason Smith
Newton High School

Smith was influenced by several musicians throughout the course of his education who motivated and inspired him to become a teacher. They included local musicians, including relatives, from his hometown, New Orleans and also his high school and college band directors. Through the years, they exposed him to numerous opportunities and encouraged him to work hard and be dedicated to his craft. He credits his two college band directors as the reasons why he specifically chose to become a band director. One saw something in him and gave him the opportunity to attend Hampton University; the other mentored him from his senior year of college through graduate school. With his career goal now determined, Smith obtained a bachelor of arts in music education from Hampton University in 2004 and added a master’s in music education from Hampton University the following year.

Smith began his teaching career at Stephenson High School in DeKalb County Schools in 2005 before joining Newton County School System as the band instructor at Newton High School in 2009. He has been at Newton High ever since. He is a member of the Georgia Music Educators Association, the Georgia Association of Jazz Educators, the National Association for Music Educators, and Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity of America. He was recently named a quarterfinalist for the 2017 Grammy Foundation Educator Award that recognizes current educators who have made a significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education and who demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in the schools.

Smith is a very active volunteer for the Walk of Heroes Veterans War Memorial in Conyers where he serves as the unofficial bugler to play “Taps,” for all Walk of Heroes programs. He also supports the Arts Association of Newton County and last year assisted the organization with their gala to raise funds for the local hospital.

Unfortunately, due to a death in the family, Mr. Smith was not at school the day of the surprise visits.

“Our hearts are heavy over the loss Jason has suffered today,” said Newton High School principal John Ellenberg. “Jason Smith is an outstanding band director and teacher and the band program at Newton High School has truly flourished under his leadership. He is not only a mentor but a role model for his students and is most definitely very deserving of this recognition. On behalf of the Newton High School family, I congratulate him on being named a finalist for Newton County Teacher of the Year.”