AECC Teacher of the Year – Jamaica Kirby

Full-circle moments in someone’s life don’t happen often, but when they do the moment is both unmistakable and unforgettable.

When Anderson Early Childhood Teacher Jamaica Kirby unlocked her door on the first day of her teaching career, she noticed something very familiar.

“I remember when I got my keys and opened my classroom door for the first time, I saw the carpet with the primary colors on it and I thought ‘I sat on that carpet when I was a student.’ There was something very special about coming back to teach at the school where I was a student,” Jamaica recalled.

Five years later, Jamaica is still teaching at AECC and, not only is she teaching, she’s teaching at a high level. This year, Jamaica was voted by her peers at Teacher of the Year at AECC. It’s an accomplishment that surprised her, but also moved her to tears.

“When they announced that I won Teacher of The Year, I burst into tears. I was just happy to make it to the top three,” she said. “I know what I do in my classroom and how much energy I give, but it means a lot to know that other people notice what I do.”

If you were to step into Jamaica’s class for even a short period of time, the energy she exudes while teaching would be impossible to ignore. Her voice is commanding, but always positive. Her movements are succinct, but never startling. She can address an undesired behavior exhibited by a student without breaking the stride of her instruction. Above all else, she can maintain student engagement with a group of students who are all under the age of five.  In other words, her creativity shines through.

“Here at AECC, you’re embraced for your creativity. I’ve turned my class into a pizza parlor; I’ve come to school dressed like a bunny. I love the creative part of teaching and just putting a smile on my kids’ faces,” she explained. “Having Coach Chris as a principal that is great about embracing teachers’ personalities goes such a long way in making my job enjoyable.”

Along with Jamaica’s creativity, her understanding of the high-quality curriculum is an important factor in her students’ success. As a teacher, however, she knows that bringing extra supplements into the curriculum in order to bring the lesson to life is where learning can really take place.

“We have a wonderful curriculum, and I have to teach what I have to teach, but the extra stuff I get to add on is what makes it fun. Having the ability to be creative is something I love about teaching,” she said. “I wear a different hat for every letter of the alphabet…literally. Last week, we learned the letter “H” and I wore a hot dog hat. For the letter “G”, I had a gold hat; letter “F” was a flamingo. The weirdest hat I had was the letter “X” – I wore an X-Ray hat. But, I also have a jellyfish hat that’s pretty weird.”

All educators wear many different hats, but Jamaica literally wears a different hat each week. Her students are drawn to her energy and her fun-loving spirit while she teaches the class. The foundations of learning and literacy are being laid by Jamaica but she’s wearing a jellyfish hat rather than a construction hat. 

While her infectious energy and creativity in the classroom are important attributes, she realizes that the most fundamental principle of teaching can be boiled down to one thing: relationships.

“A successful teacher HAS to build relationships with their students first and foremost. Students have to know they are safe with you before they’ll ever listen to you. When those relationships are built, the behavior issues start to take care of themselves – everything becomes easier,” she said.

Of course, you also have to have fun when it comes to teaching and learning.

“It’s also extremely important to make learning experiences for your students engaging. It’s easy to come in and read your curriculum, do what’s said there, and keep going. But when you plan for it and realize the things you can add to it that make it engaging, that’s when the learning really takes off.”

For Jamaica, the relationships that are being built are ones that last years after her students leave her classroom. Some of those relationships also pre-date her students ever coming into her classroom.

“I love everything about teaching, but what I love the most about it are the relationships you build – not just the kids but the families. I still talk to the parents of my first class I ever had here. I still have parents from years ago donating things to my classroom. Through those relationships, you can build close bonds with the kids,” she said. “Some of the parents here I went to school with; Haywood County is very connected. You can feel very comfortable here because of all the connections.  This is an amazing district to build relationships.”

Not only is Jamaica teaching young learners the foundational principles of learning, she’s doing it in the same town where she grew up and in the same building where she attended school. 

“Pre-K is so important for learning. It builds the foundational skills for all future learning. It helps students become more independent at an early age. Parents can work with those skills at home, too,” she explained. “We also do so much more than just play. I think there’s a misconception about Pre-K that all we do is play, but so much learning is taking place, too. Everything in this room has a purpose in learning. We think everything through to make sure every manipulative, every activity has a learning component to it. We want all of them ahead when they start Kindergarten.”

And while Jamaica knows that laying the foundations of education would be an important job for anyone anywhere, she realizes how fortunate she is to be doing it in her hometown.

“It’s really neat to be able to make a difference in the same place that made such an impact on me.”