By Curt Yeomans
After the excitement died down, Melissa Marie Colon tried to call her mother in Saginaw, Mich., to share her good news.
District officials had just walked into her dance class at Babb Middle School, handed her flowers and balloons, and offered congratulations.
It was not until after many of the visitors had left, when Colon stood in the middle of her classroom, hoping to get a hold of her mother, Linda Tomandl. She tried her mother's work place, but she wasn't there.
Colon, who teaches dance and health, then tried her mother's cell phone number, and she just heard ringing -- and ringing -- and more ringing.
The anticipation was unbearable for the seven-year educator. She had to share the good news with her mother, and finally she heard a voice on the other end of the line.
"Hey, Mom -- guess what? I'm Clayton County's Teacher of the Year!" exclaimed Colon, resting her right hand on her forehead, still trying to process the news.
Colon will now compete for state Teacher of the Year honors. The Georgia Department of Education will not name that teacher until the spring of 2009. In the meantime, Colon will be recognized, along with teachers of the year from every other school in the district, in November.
Other finalists for the county's Teacher of the Year award were: Caryn Turner, Rex Mill Middle School; Francene Garrett, Lovejoy Middle School; Tanya Johnson-Kirk, Riverdale Middle School; Natalie Walters, Suder Elementary School; Nakisha Polite, Jonesboro High School, and Venus Marks, Forest Park Middle School.
"Her [Colon] passion for teaching is what stood out," said Jo Jackson, the district's coordinator of Health and physical education, and a member of the Teacher of the Year selection committee. "She is just really into teaching her students, and she goes above and beyond the call of duty."
Damond Williams, 13, an eighth-grade dance student, said she offers words of encouragement to students when they need them. "If you come in here and you're not feeling well, she'll talk to you about what's going on, and she tries to make you feel better," Williams said.
Leslie Lucena, 13, another eighth-grade dance pupil, said the teacher gives instructions young people can understand. "She's taught us a lot, and she gets down on our level," said Lucena.
For Colon, teaching is in her bloodline. Her grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse, and her aunt was also a teacher. Her mother earned a teaching certificate, but instead, decided to work in retail management.
Colon has an undergraduate degree from Saginaw Valley State University, and a master's degree from Nova Southeastern University. Babb Middle School is the first -- and only -- school where Colon has taught. She said there were no teaching opportunities in her native Michigan, so she began looking at other states, and eventually came across an opening at Babb.
"I grew up in Saginaw, but when my mother and I came here and met [Principal Felicia Brown], we immediately knew this was home," said Colon.
Brown said the school's staff is happy to be Colon's "family away from home" and everyone is proud of her accomplishments.
"She has no other family down here, so we're her family and we're happy to fill that role for her," Brown said. "We know she will represent Babb Middle School, and Clayton County, exceptionally well."