Photos by Derek Bell

Who was your favorite teacher as a child? Go ahead and think on it for a moment; we will wait for you. Chances are you can remember their name, what they looked like and why they had such a profound effect on you. 

While we may not be able to recall what we had for lunch three days ago, when queried about our former teachers we suddenly find ourselves immersed in thoughts of days gone past. Andy Rooney summed up why this is true when he said, “Most of us end up with no more than five or six people who remember us. Teachers have thousands of people who remember them for the rest of their lives.” 

Today’s educators are tasked with a growing number of responsibilities and challenges. Standardized test scores, high dropout rates, broken homes and the emergence of technology are but a few of the balls a modern teacher must juggle successfully. Here in Rome City Schools (RCS), we are blessed to have an excellent school system staffed by dedicated and determined educators. RCS has established a reputation for high-quality education and a commitment to meeting the challenges facing today’s students.

Southeast Elementary (1400 Crane St., Rome) is blessed to have a number of unique and dedicated professionals who make a daily difference in our community. Principal Phil Wood, 2013-2014 Teacher of the Year Kathy Teat, and Support Person of the Year Aquila Askew are among a few of the many at Southeast who are making such a difference. As further proof of the commitment to their students, Askew was named Support Person of the Year for the entire Rome City Schools system on Oct. 15. 

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Dr. Wood has worked for RCS in many capacities. A former history teacher at Rome High School, he has also spent time as an assistant principal at the middle school and elementary levels. Many Romans have been touched by Dr. Wood as a teacher, coach or even through his work as a participant in Civil War reenactments. As the leader of Southeast, Dr. Wood brings a wide range of experience and an unmatched passion to his role.

Entering his third full year as principal, Dr. Wood has seen Southeast realize a dramatic upturn in the performance of its students. The CCRPI (or College and Career Readiness Performance Index) is one of the ways schools assess student performance. Initially scoring under the 50th percentile in fifth-grade reading when Dr. Wood took over, students tested at 71.7% by the end of 2013. He humbly gave his teachers all the credit for this dramatic turnaround; however, his guidance has likely been instrumental in the process.  

One of these amazing educators is Kathy Teat. A lifelong resident of Rome, Teat has been an educator all her life. Working as a paraprofessional for 21 years at Saint Mary’s Catholic School as well as RCS, she has touched the lives of generations of students. After her two children, Marla and Chad, graduated from the RCS system, Teat went back to school and earned her degree in special education. She would eventually study further and earn her master’s degree in 2010. Last year, she was honored as Teacher of the Year by her colleagues, who chose her to represent their school from among a number of worthy candidates.

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Teat works as a pre-K special needs teacher at Southeast Elementary, serving students with a variety of special educational demands. This wide range of students presents a unique challenge, as a typical class includes children with brain trauma, autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, feeding tubes and severe learning disabilities. 

Dr. Wood describes Teat as “a miracle worker because of the progress those kids make.” As an ultimate compliment in her abilities, he adds, “I’d take a building full of Kathy Teats. She has the patience for the job and she has the positive mentality that is needed to work in that kind of position. She was born for this position; it is her calling in life.”

Teat bubbles over with enthusiasm as she describes, in her typically disarming style, what she hopes to achieve for her students. “I teach them until they are ready to learn,” she says. 

Her program is designed to prepare students for everyday general classroom learning by helping them thrive in that environment. Her learning space at Southeast is warm, inviting and reflective of her caring personality. Students are taught the same curriculum as pre-K but with an added emphasis upon life skills. For example, while teaching students the basic ABCs, she also tackles important skills like eating and dressing without help.

In her fifth full year at Southeast, Teat employs a wide range of non-traditional means to monitor the progress of her students. She uses observational notes, data collection and work samples throughout the year to ensure that students are developing at an appropriate rate. She is joined in the classroom by her assistant, Support Person of the Year, Aquila Askew. This duo makes a daily difference in the lives of their students.

“Every day, we put on our nurse’s hat, our physical therapist’s hat, our teacher’s hat, our occupational therapist’s hat, and we always wear our mama’s hat,” Teat explains with a smile. “In the lunchroom, we are teaching them how to use a fork, teaching life skills; there is no down time. Every single aspect of the day is a learning opportunity.” 

Teat describes some of the challenges with a laugh that belies the seriousness of her position. “In the hallways, I always walk backward, counting heads,” she says. “If one of my students gets ahead of me, they will often run.”  

And Teat’s work day does not end when her students return to their homes. The classroom must be cleaned daily, notes and observations documented professionally, lessons prepared for the next day, and special education paperwork completed to the letter. Her days are often long, with 10 to 12 hours being the norm. 

As a good indicator of how dedicated she is to her craft, Teat shared a brief story about traveling to students’ homes to hand out T-shirts for the upcoming school year. Although she only mentioned it in passing, it illustrated the true scope of her dedication to Southeast Elementary because she did it over the summer and many of the students were not even in her classroom. Visiting her students’ homes helps her touch the lives of families and better understand who they are, giving her perspective and helping her see how she can best help and support them. 

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Educating students is more than a job for Teat and Askew. It seems to be a lifestyle.

Rome is blessed with many wonderful and hard-working educators. They have chosen a taxing and complex profession that requires dedication and love to become truly successful. Working with special-needs children requires its own unique skill set, and Southeast’s Kathy Teat and Aquila Askew rise to that challenge in a stellar fashion.

Under the leadership of Dr. Wood, they are not only performing a job that others would find impossible, but they are doing it well with both fortitude and humor. 

In our own lives, we often have to wear many different hats – from parent, to employee, to coworker, to friend. Teat wears her many hats with style and grace, and she is Teacher of the Year because her colleagues and community recognize her outstanding efforts. 

Southeast Elementary School is on the rise in the Rome City School System because of teachers like Kathy Teat. We tip our hats to you all.