Each fall, schools around Vermont recognize their most excellent educators. In Milton and Georgia, colleagues nominate candidates for the University of Vermont Outstanding Teacher award, presented at an annual banquet. Up to 100 teachers are nominated each year in the 45 participating districts. This year, special educator Kati Ringer and guidance counselors Kati Ringer and Melissa Fisher will be recognized at the 34th Annual Outstanding Teacher Day on October 22. Learn more about them in this week’s issue.
It’s noon in Sharon King’s classroom, and students are sitting in plushy chairs, playing foosball and listening to hip hop streaming from an iPod.
“This is lunch,” King said, surveying the room. “Anyone can come to lunch, and what I like is it takes [away] that, ‘You only go to guidance if you have a problem’ [idea] … We usually eat and chat and visit.”
King, a 12-year guidance counselor in Milton, is one of this year’s UVM Outstanding Teachers. Just spending an hour in her room shows her impact on students, who are eager to talk about how Ms. King has helped them.
“She’s fun even when you’re in a depressing mood. She joys you up,” 12-year-old Taylor said. “Once you’re done talking and you feel a little better, and you go back to class, and I have a good day.”
King opens up her space, which she shares with longtime guidance counselor Patti Ransom, for an hour daily for lunch. Students are given the highly coveted passes for lunchtime, which provides respite from the bustling cafeteria. After eating, students can play games or otherwise relax.
This time is consistent with King’s perspective of total wellness, one of the reasons health teacher Joanna Scott nominated her for the award.
“We’re speaking to the whole person, and Sharon does that whether it’s in a class or one-on-one,” Scott said. “She encompasses this passion for what she does. She’s really relatable, and you can see that the way she interacts with the kids and her colleagues.”
King came to Milton in 2002 after earning her master’s in psychology and a guidance licensure. Since then, she’s counseled grades 5-8, now focusing on the older grades. King moved from England after an exchange program in Vermont, where she’s also coached sports and worked at an outdoor center.
“I’ve always been that wellness type – it’s physical, it’s spiritual, it’s emotional, and all my licenses collect and in this job,” she said. “I can do all of those things. It’s like the perfect job.”
King’s enthusiasm for her work is as bright as the fluorescent Chuck Taylor All-Stars she dons on her feet. She appreciates every day she’s able to help a student, and some of it is personal.
“I have an opportunity to help an individual feel supported, feel acknowledged, feel heard,” she said. “I don’t feel I got that as a child, so I feel very blessed.”
Understanding the middle school psyche, however, isn’t always straightforward. King describes her students as “adults and children at the same time,” going from deep intellectual conversations to hissy fits in minutes.
But through her students, King gets to relive middle school in a more positive way. She reaches them through music, games and outdoor activity, including field trips to Mount Mansfield, which students recounted with wide grins.
But the issues today’s middle-schoolers face are drastically different from when King was a child. For one, cyber bullying and harassment has taken hold, a nonstop problem that is hard to monitor. King sees up to four of these cases a week.
“Provide them with tools where information disappears in 10 seconds … it’s phenomenally incredible and very dangerous,” King said of social media, “and we as adults haven’t gotten to grips with it.”
King and teachers like Scott insert lessons about such issues in the regular curriculum, changing with the times. Scott, who shares a classroom wall with the guidance office, said it’s always special to work with King.
“She just has this really calming presence about her,” Scott said, for students and colleagues alike.
Sometimes King doesn’t even realize her effect on her students. It was a wow moment when a former student emailed to say that instead of fasting for Lent, she wrote letters to the people who impacted her faith. The student, not a regular visitor to King’s office, said she could always turn to King to feel heard.
King keeps the letter in her tablet case and pulls it out when she needs reminding that her work matters.
“It’s really important to me that every kid would feel as though they’re very important and what they’re experiencing is real,” she said. “They absolutely deserve for someone to support them to get through whatever it is.”
King was surprised to receive the award and plans to thank the principals and teachers who helped her along the way in her acceptance speech. Just like she tells her students, you can’t always get somewhere alone.
“I would not have put myself on the top of the pile,” she said.” I would have said I’m just trying to keep up.”
Other outstanding teachers in 2014:
Melissa Fisher: An open door policy
Kati Ringer: Special educator personalizes learning