Two Mercererians are in the running to be named the 2024 Georgia Teacher of the Year. Katie Jenkins, a 2001 College of Education alumna, and Veena Black, a current student in the Master of Education in Educational Leadership program, are among the 10 finalists for the award.
The winner will be announced at a banquet in Jekyll Island on June 10.
Black holds bachelor’s degrees in psychology and elementary education from Rutgers University, and she is poised to complete her master’s degree in education leadership at Mercer this summer.
She worked in schools in New Jersey and Texas early in her career, teaching first grade and special education, before taking a slight detour. She became a United Methodist missionary, served as a church youth director for two years, and then moved to Georgia to attend seminary.
However, Black found that she missed teaching and returned to the classroom in DeKalb County. She’s been there for 15 years now, the last five at Briarlake Elementary.
She started as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teacher at the school and currently teaches second grade and serves as the STEM lead. She has initiated programs in robotics, coding, aquaponics and gardening; secured grants for important learning resources; and established community partnerships.
“I love that I can help my students know that they can do anything,” Black said. “They can’t say ‘I can’t’ or ‘I won’t.’ They just have to try. I always help my students raise their self confidence.”
Black said she challenges her students to ask, imagine, create, improve, plan and share, and she shows them how they can take their thinking further.
“My students are free. I don’t structure the classroom where they have to sit in one spot and do pencil and paper,” she said. “I’m really good at extending the learning where I help my students think creatively, and they get excited about learning. I love thinking of ways for them to apply their learning to the real world.”
Black wants to pursue leadership roles in her school district, so she can be a problem-solver for educators and help improve the education system. She hopes her selection as a Teacher of the Year finalist will lead to additional opportunities.
“I cannot believe I’m among these amazing teachers,” Black said. “That made me feel really honored that these other nine finalists were superb.”
Following the completion of her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education at Mercer, Jenkins earned a master’s degree in integrating technology at Walden University and a specialist degree in technology management and administration at Nova Southeastern University.
She began her career by teaching fourth and fifth grades at her childhood school, Crescent Road Elementary in Griffin, and then transferred to Orrs Elementary to lead the technology and college and career readiness labs. Since 2016, she has been at Stark Elementary in Butts County.
As an early intervention program teacher, Jenkins helps students in kindergarten and second, third and fifth grades enhance their math, reading and life skills. She also mentors new teachers and supports teachers in all grade levels.
“I am a support teacher. I work with struggling kids who need just a little bit of help to stay on grade level,” she said. “I absolutely love it because I’m able to support teachers and students and help them succeed in ways they may not be able to otherwise.”
Reading and math are foundational skills, and it’s important for students to stay on track, so they don’t fall behind. Every day, she works with six groups of students on math and reading skills.
“I’m able to build these relationships, see those kids succeed and build that self-confidence, and see them be successful and realize they can accomplish great things,” she said.
She strives to show her students how their knowledge can apply to real life. She also creates an environment where they know it’s OK to fail as long as they get back up and keep trying.
“If they don’t see and understand the importance and how it relates to everyday life, they don’t usually want to learn,” she said. “If I flip that around, they take it and run with it. I love that I have the flexibility to be a teacher and present the material to my students in a different manner.”
Jenkins said her recognition as a top 10 finalist was a shocking and humbling experience.
“There are so many other deserving teachers. It is a great honor and one that I hope to make the county and state proud,” she said. “It validates my ‘why.’ I don’t look at it as a job; I look at it as a calling. That’s what motivates me, to know that I’ve made a difference. It encourages me to keep on.”