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Masters of the Classroom
Rex Mill trio among state's top teachers

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Rex Mill Middle School teachers Janice Mitchell, Amelia Alexander, and Inez Biles, say they do not want to leave their profession - or their school, for that matter - for anything else in this world.

Two members of the trio, Mitchell and Biles, said they have been so impressed with the math-and-science-theme school, they moved their children out of schools in other counties and put them in Rex Mill. They cite a high quality education as the reason why they have so much faith in the school, but the trio of teachers have themselves been deemed by state officials to be among Georgia's top educators.

Mitchell, Alexander, and Biles are the only Clayton County teachers to qualify for the state's 2009 Master Teacher program, according to Gov. Sonny Perdue's office.

"I attribute a lot of our success to the vision and mission of Rex Mill Middle School, which is to lead the state in putting academics first," Mitchell said.

"One of the things we stress here is 'Don't be ordinary - be extraordinary,'" Biles said.

Mitchell teaches eighth-grade science, while Biles teaches sixth-grade math, and Alexander is a gifted language arts teacher for grades six through eight.

Mitchell has 10 years of classroom experience, while Biles and Alexander have been teaching for five years.

Each of the three had a different path to becoming an educator, but all said they became teachers to help young people have a chance at a bright future.

Biles, 34, said her inspiration came from her parents, who did not attend college, but wanted their children to excel academically. Biles and her siblings were in Greenwood, Miss., which is in Mississippi's Delta region, in the northwest part of the state. Biles said she was a first-generation college student in her family, receiving her degree in math education from Mississippi Valley State University. "I was determined to finish school, and help someone else, and show them you can, and will, be somebody," Biles said.

Alexander, 28, took an interest in teaching language arts to children when she was a high school student, and overseeing a reading program at a summer camp. While she was reading to elementary-school-age children, she realized she enjoyed interacting with them and teaching them how to read. "It's my first career, and it will probably be my only career," she said.

For Mitchell, 48, an early interest in math and science took her down the road from being the pupil, to becoming the teacher. She said science experiments have always been particularly interesting to her as she sees science in action. "It just got my interest," she said. "It was very exciting [as a student], and I thought it was a lot of fun. Every day [as a teacher] is really more like fun than work when you're doing something you enjoy."

The Master Teacher program was established through legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly in 2005 to recognize public school teachers, with at least three years of experience, who regularly exhibit excellence in the classroom.

That excellence is defined as "gains in student achievement," measured through state mandated test scores, according to the Master Teachers program web site. The program is overseen by the state's Professional Standards Commission.

The governor announces a new class of Master Teachers each spring. The first was selected in 2006.

The trio of Rex Mill teachers, who obtained Master Teacher status this year, join a small group of teachers within the Clayton County Public School System who have accomplished the feat.

In all, 16 Clayton County educators have earned Master Teacher status in the four Master Teacher classes, according to the program's web site. In a written statement, Perdue said there have been 466 across the state during over the last four years. "They are masters at inspiring students to learn," he said. "I am proud to recognize their tireless efforts, and collective success in improving student achievement."

Alexander explained that the key to improving student achievement has to do more with caring and motivation than with reciting facts from a textbook, day after day. She said a teacher has to make sure his or her students understand how much the educator is interested in, and cares about, the welfare of the students. "They don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care," she said.