As a veteran teacher with 25 years experience, a love of seeing students learn and a hands-on approach to learning, Lumpkin County Middle School’s STEAM teacher Tori Jones is the top choice for the System Teacher of the Year.
“She does an amazing job engaging students in hands-on learning opportunities. She is innovative and unconventional with her approach to creating lessons that reach all students. She has proven time and time again that all students can learn when they have a teacher who is relentless in their pursuit of educating and loving children,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Rob Brown.
STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics and is taught in a way that gives students access points for guiding inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking.
It all sounds new-fangled, but really, Jones said, it’s how she has always taught. She spent much of her 25-year-career in education teaching kindergarten and first grade.
“That’s how kindergarteners learn. They utilize all the senses. They hear, see and do,” Jones said. “Teaching kindergarten helped me appreciate that.”
Jones knew early-on what she wanted to do when she grew up. She wanted to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps. She wanted to be a teacher.
That dream became even more clear to Jones after she left teaching when her daughter, Olivia, was born. At that time she had taught kindergarten and first grade for eight years—three in Hawaii and five in Lumpkin County.
When Olivia was born she and a friend opened A Child’s Garden, a children’s clothing store.
“I thought I was going to change careers,” she said, “but when Olivia started kindergarten I came back as a volunteer. I decided this is really where my heart is.”
Jones returned to the classroom and taught 1st, 3rd and remedial 2nd and 4th grade, before being asked to take on the 5th grade science classes.
When asked what her favorite grade to teach is, she said she has “really enjoyed all of them. But as I have matured and gotten older and learned more, I’ve leaned more and more toward science.”
She said her husband, Dr. Joseph Jones, has a lot to do with that.
“He is a scientist. He taught physics at the University of North Georgia until he retired. I went with him often when he would speak and to meetings and conferences.”
Having lived in Hawaii close to an active volcano and near the Grand Canyon is Arizona also made her more aware of the world around her, she said.
“Between my husband and those experiences, I became more inquisitive,” she said.
She also took a good deal of in-service training that helped her learn science content and techniques of inquiry-based teaching in the classroom. The Psci training, taught by UNG’s Dr. Mark Straker and Dr. April Nelms, “helped build up my confidence in science content,” she said, but it was the inquiry-based method of teaching that she recognized as such a valuable teaching tool.
“I got rid of the desks and just used tables. I had the students work in teams and used the textbook as a resource,” Jones said. “We went beyond the textbook. When we studied about the circulatory system we dissected fetal pig hearts, for example.”
That’s not something most 5th graders get the chance to do.
“I think that had a lot to do with me becoming the middle school STEAM teacher,” she said.
When she agreed to take on that challenge the school system sent her to STEAM Academy—a year-long training in partnership with the Georgia Youth Science & Technology Center and the State Department of Education.
“We went to different sessions, visited Lockheed Martin in Marietta—that was fascinating—the Augusta Medical Center and other places. We each have a mentor—a veteran teacher. My mentor came here and helped me develop lesson plans, observed my class and gave feedback. I’ve had a lot of support from the system,” Jones said.
LOVE FOR LEARNING
This is Jones’ second year at the middle school, and hands-on learning is at the center of all her instruction. While teaching a unit on bio-engineering, for example, she had teams of three students build a valve that would only allow a one-way flow—no easy task, she said.
“They had to brainstorm, plan, build it, and rebuild it. Most of them failed more than once, but failures are what we learn from. That’s one of the lessons I am trying teach,” Jones said. “Part of what I want to do is improve their self-efficacy in science. I love seeing students get excited about learning, persevere in learning despite the obstacles, and seeing the look on their faces when they finally get it. It doesn’t matter how long it takes.”
Seeing that light go on in a student’s eyes is Jones’ favorite part of teaching. It’s the few she encounters that “have an apathy about learning, that don’t participate, that is so disheartening,” she said. “Those you just can’t reach, who don’t receive what you are trying to teach.”
Jones said she was “very humbled and honored—and surprised” to be chosen as both the middle school and system-wide teacher of the year. “There was one vote apart between the top three for the middle school, so it was virtually a three-way tie. We have a great group of teachers. And the administration is so supportive.”
On the system level, she said, “There are good teachers doing innovative things and our kids show it. We’ve got a great school system.”