Cartwheeling through school lands award for local teacher

Contessa Harris

June 17 is a night Glenn Marshall Elementary first-grade teacher Contessa Harris will never forget.

She went to the school alone at 7 p.m. for better internet to participate in a Zoom call, one that was branded as an update for teachers who were nominated for the Sanford Teacher Award.

One teacher from each of the 50 states and one from Washington, D.C., were eventually going to be chosen as award recipients for being inspiring teachers in their classrooms.

"I had my Chromebook open ready for that Zoom call, but I told my husband before I left, everyone who applied … for this in the United States is on this call," Harris said. "I said, 'Can you imagine the hundreds, possibly thousands of people,' and I told him, 'When I get there tonight, I'm going to count and see how many people are on that. Because if it's less than 50, then maybe we're the winners.'"

She was getting antsy.

And sure enough, when she joined the call there were about 30 other teachers like Harris on the call.

After a couple of staff members talked explaining the call was just an update, the chancellor started talking.

"It didn't take long," Harris said. "He announced, 'Every one of you are your state's winner for the 2020 Sanford Teaching Award.'"

Even though she was alone in the school, Harris shouted in excitement.

"And then all of a sudden, I had these tears pouring down my face. It was like, you know, like everything that's going on right now, you kind of wish you had a party to celebrate, but we couldn't," she said.

"And then I reflected later, I was like, 'I was all alone in my classroom, but that's OK.'" she said. "That was good enough for me right then and there, but in that moment, you know, you wish everybody was here, but later, I was just so humbled to even receive the award.

"And I'm still in shock."

The Sanford Teacher Award, according to a news release, is designed to honor "the top teacher in each state and the District of Columbia with $10,000 for supporting student development and achievement in inspirational and harmonious ways."

Harris plans on using some of the award money for the fee associated with renewing her national board certification, which she did last year. She also used some of it to buy things for the classroom for the upcoming year. The majority of it, she said, will be spent on odds and ends throughout the school year.

Each award winner will continue to work with the Sanford Harmony and Inspire Programs and receive training in communications and advocacy for teaching that is inspirational and grounded in social and emotional development, as well, the release states.

The award program was established in the name of philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, who is committed to supporting social and emotional learning in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade nationwide.

Each recipient is also eligible to be named the national winner of the Sanford Teacher Award, which would come with $50,000.

Despite Harris still being in shock about receiving the award, Principal Jill Whitaker of Glenn Marshall knew from the beginning Harris would be selected.

"I am so excited and honored to have a Glenn Marshall teacher win such a prestigious award and represent both our school and district. Mrs. Harris is a top notch teacher and I know she will represent Glenn Marshall well," Whitaker said. "… I would put Mrs. Harris up against any teacher in the nation!"

However, originally nominated by her mother, Harris had never heard of the award until she received the email explaining she was nominated for it.

She then researched it online to make sure it was real.

That was late last year, Harris said, and even after looking it up, it wasn't a priority. It was the middle of the school year, and teaching was at the forefront of her mind.

"I kind of thought, 'OK, I'll put that on the back burner,'" she said.

But she set her mind to it because social and emotional learning are things Harris has always used in her teaching methods and is passionate about.

"So the application just kind of asked me things you know, how do you build that community in your classroom? How do you interact with parents?" she said.

As she filled it out, she really thought about the things she does on a daily basis to help with social and emotional learning in the classroom.

"I like to focus on the whole child, and a lot of times, when people hear about schools, they think about data and testing and academics, and yes, that is part of it, and we do want to teach our children. We do want them to learn content," Harris said. "But as I get older, I think more of the focus should be on the child with, you know, their ethics, their social help, their mental help, are they physically being met? Are they cognitively learning? What about their language? Do they need help with those things?"

She explained a lot of children need help and guidance with those things, especially social learning right now with the coronavirus pandemic interrupting a lot of day-to-day social interactions.

"So for the last few years, as soon as students came into my room, I would use something called morning tubs," Harris said.

Each child grabs a tub and starts playing with another child. It lasts about 20 minutes after breakfast and before the official school day starts. She said it helps students learn how to play and talk to each other.

"A lot of emotions can occur," Harris explained. "I don't call any child bad, but they do have behaviors that they have to learn to adjust and control, and so using this time to teach how to correctly play with someone — how if you don't like that someone took your toy, let's talk about how we need to react to that."

She said she likes to include that in the mornings, because sometimes once the official school day starts, students are crammed with content that has to be covered.

"And then you think, 'Am I really reaching the child with the academic part, because are they even focused? Are they even listening to me because of their social, emotional needs,'" Harris said. "I try to focus a whole bunch on let's let the child understand that I'm here to love them and I want them to respect me. I'm going to respect them, but also, your classmates are here, too. We're all here together. This is one community. We've got to work together."

She also teaches children mindfulness, such as breathing techniques, to help them learn to relax and calm down.

Additionally, Harris is known for her cartwheels.

"I'm cartwheeling social emotional learning one day at a time," she said.

Sometimes when a student is feeling bad and isn't focusing, she'll do one on-the-spot to cheer up her student.

"Look at silly Mrs. Harris doing this, and then we can get back on focus … ," she said.

It's also a metaphor she uses to teach her students about life.

Some days, she said, you're grounded and planted on you feet, such as when she starts the cartwheel.

But then, when she's part way through the cartwheel, her hands and feet go to the sides. Sometimes, that's how days can feel, she tells her students.

It's something that really resonates with first-graders.

"I still have kids today who have actually graduated asking, 'Mrs. Harris, do you still do those cartwheels?'" she explained.

Parents ask about them, too, and it's one of the ways Harris builds relationships with her students and their parents, which is another reason Whitaker said she's proud of Harris.

It's also one of the reasons Whitakers wasn't surprised when Harris was chosen as the award recipient.

"Teachers work so hard day-in and day-out, and it's very nice when they get extra recognition," Whitaker said. "I know Mrs. Harris will represent Glenn Marshall and Madison County well at the national level. I am very proud of Mrs. Harris!"

The Sanford Teacher Awards is part of the national expansion efforts of the National University System-based Sanford Programs, which in addition to Sanford Harmony and Sanford Inspire also includes a national network of fundraiser training programs anchored by the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy at National University.

Reach Sara Kuhl at 624-6626; follow her on Twitter @saraekuhl.

About Contessa Harris

Harris has been teaching with Madison County Schools for 14 years, and started teaching first grade at Glenn Marshall Elementary when it first opened.

She lives on a family farm with her husband, Greg, and twin daughters Kyla and Shayla. They love camping, hunting and going out on the lake.

Harris has always known she was going to be a teacher and can remember playing school as a girl, acting as a teacher with her stuffed animals as her students.

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