By Curt Yeomans
Mt. Zion Primary School Kindergarten Teacher Avè Maria Tatum said her knees locked up when Clayton County Public Schools administrators, including Superintendent Edmond Heatley, showed up in her classroom, unannounced, while she was reading a story to her students on Monday.
Tatum, a resident of McDonough, froze up because the surprise visitors came bearing gifts, including a floral arrangement and a poster, and some big news: She is Clayton County Public Schools' 2010 Teacher Of The Year.
"I was like, 'Oh my God,'" Tatum said on Tuesday. "It's like winning the Publisher's Clearinghouse. That's what I equate it to, because they come in unannounced and surprise you ... For them to say I'm Clayton County's Teacher Of The Year, it's like 'Wow.' It's almost unbelievable. I'm still in shock."
Tatum, 35, is in her 10th year of teaching, and her fifth year with Clayton County Public Schools. She is married to Marvin Tatum, Sr., and is the mother of Gabriel, 14, a student at Union Grove High School, and the stepmother of 26-year-old Marvin Tatum, Jr.
She holds a bachelors degree in elementary education from the University of Michigan, and a master's degree in teaching from Detroit, Mich.-based Marygrove College. She said she is currently working on an online doctoral degree in education from Minneapolis, Minn.-based Walden University.
Tatum's career in education began in her hometown of Detroit, where she taught third-graders. She said she was inspired by her own fourth-grade teacher, Carolyn McKanders, to become a teacher. "She did whatever it took to make sure we had everything we needed to get an education," Tatum said. "She instilled in me that you had to be here for your students."
When Tatum came to Clayton County in 2005, she became a first-grade teacher at Mt. Zion Elementary School. Pre-kindergarten-through-second grade was broken off from that school during the 2008-2009 school year, when Mt. Zion Primary School opened next door, and Tatum went to the new school.
The move to Mt. Zion Primary is also when she became a kindergarten teacher. It's a grade-level she now says she does not want to stop working with - and she plans to teach for another 30 years.
"I love kindergarten," she said. "It's when they first come to school, and they want to learn, and there's so much to teach them."
Each November, the teachers of the year from all Clayton County schools are recognized during a ceremony at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center. During the annual ceremony, the school system's overall teacher of the year addresses her fellow educators, with some words of advice.
"Be the child that you teach," is the message Tatum said she is going to convey to her fellow educators. "I always put myself in their [the students] shoes, look at things through their eyes, try to understand what's going on in their lives, and then figure out the best way to reach them in the classroom," she said. "We have to be the students in order to understand what's going on with them."
During a school day, Tatum breaks her 18 pupils up into smaller groups, so she and her paraprofessional, Beverly Davidson, can give each pupil more one-on-one instruction. Tatum said having Davidson in her classroom is one of the reasons why she is able to do her job.
Davidson, however, said Tatum is a good teacher, because she gives teaching everything she has. "She puts her all-in-all into what she does, and you can feel that," Davidson said. "It's not just an ordinary job for her ... She wants to see that her children, her class, absorbs everything she is teaching them."
Several of Tatum's students said they were happy when school officials came to their class and announced that their teacher was the district's new Teacher Of The Year.
"I like when she teaches us, because I think she's the best teacher ever," said kindergartner, Taron Beal, 5. "It made us happy because we think she's a good teacher of the year," he added.
Kindergartner Garrison Madden, 5, said he appreciates Tatum because she teaches her students rules about how to behave, but he added that having all of the visitors in the classroom on Monday was a bit jarring. "It was kinda weird, because there were a lot of people in here, and I'm not used to that," he said.
Tatum will be feted at a special dinner to be held at the school on Friday evening, said Mt. Zion Primary School Assistant Principal Rochelle Smith. She said the school's administration is working on ways to continually show Tatum how much she is appreciated the remainder of the school year.
"She's an awesome person," Smith said. "She's passionate, and absolutely cares for her kids ... Even on her worst days, she's still on top of her game."