Cecilia Frost – TOY

The topic of teaching has been in the news often over the last few years.  In the spring of 2020, COVID-19 disrupted the world of education and continued to drastically affect teaching and learning within a physical space.  Teachers had to adjust to disseminating lessons online and teaching students through a computer screen.  Students had to do their best to stay engaged while sitting in their dining rooms or on their couches and communicating with their teachers via Zoom.  An already challenging job became nearly impossible.  Many teachers understandably left the profession.  The ones who stayed, however, made the best of an undeniably difficult situation.  

Because of the challenges that COVID-19 created in schools and districts across the country, the value of teachers should have risen.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case universally speaking.  In other words, good teachers are hard to find.  Haywood County Schools (HCS) is quite fortunate, though, to have many high-quality teachers teaching across the district.  

This past fall, HCS announced building level teachers of the year.  Out of those teachers, three were selected as grade band teachers of the year and were placed in the divisional pool (West, Middle, East Tennessee) with the opportunity to be recognized on the state level.  The grade bands were divided into three groups based on grade levels: Pre-K – 4, 5-8, 9-12.  Each of these grade bands offer specific rewards and challenges when teaching that particular age group, but are of equal importance when it comes to educating students.  

The grade band teacher of the year for grades 5-8 is Sunny Hill Intermediate School teacher Cecilia Frost.

Cecilia’s path into the field of education didn’t follow a straight line.  Her initial experience in a classroom came as a substitute in her children’s elementary school in Memphis.  Before that, she was a professional musician.  That schedule, however, wasn’t conducive to the schedule of being a parent, so a shift occurred that altered the course of Cecilia’s professional life.  

“I was a professional musician before I went into teaching.  I play five instruments and was part of two symphonies – the Arkansas and Tennessee symphonies,” she said.  “I did that until I had children.  It got very difficult being away from them at night and the schedule wasn’t working for my family.”

When her children started school, Cecilia did, too, and it didn’t take the faculty at the school very long to notice that Cecilia had a knack for teaching.

“I started substitute teaching at my daughter’s school, and the school would call me every day.  Some of those teachers at my daughter’s school are why I’m here today,” she explained. “They strongly encouraged me to go back to school and get my master’s degree and become a teacher.  I was floored when they told me I should do that because it had never crossed my mind.  They really believed in me and the fact that I could be a great teacher.”

Like many teachers, Cecilia’s first few years were challenging but also full of growth.  Her first three years teaching were spent in the Memphis neighborhood of Orange Mound.  She believes that experience helped mold her into the kind of teacher she is today at Sunny Hill.

“I learned a lot when I taught in Orange Mound.  It was a hard fought and hard won experience.  I feel like it made me a stronger teacher.  It made me tougher.  Without that experience, I don’t think I could be successful with this age group,” she said.

Fighting through the first several years of teaching is a rite of passage for all educators who stick with teaching as a long term career choice, and Cecilia was no different.  Looking back, she recognizes the growth she experienced from her first year teaching compared to where she finds herself professionally in year 15.  

“The biggest difference in year 1 and year 15 as far as my teaching is concerned is my ability to manage a classroom.  I haven’t always been good at classroom management.  I thought all kids were like my kids because that’s all I knew.  It was a wake up call for me when I realized that wasn’t the case.  It took me a good four years until I learned how to manage a class.  I don’t really send people to the office unless they do something really egregious.  I try my best to handle my own problems and situations,” she said.

Classroom management is one of the most discussed topics in education.  Long gone are the days of authoritarian discipline in classrooms.  Relationships between teachers and students have to be cultivated for learning to take place and for classrooms to be managed.  Cecilia knows that students are excellent judges of authenticity when it comes to their teachers.  

“Kids are terrific judges of character,” she said.  “I feel like my heart goes out to the students who I know don’t have it very easy.  I hope they can connect to that.  I connect to them that way; I know that.”

“Kids are terrific judges of character.  I feel like my heart goes out to the students who I know don’t have it very easy.  I hope they can connect to that.  I connect to them that way; I know that.” – Cecilia Frost

Along with connecting with her students, Cecilia actively enjoys the science of teaching.  She likes the preparation and the delivery of instruction.  She loves seeing the students grasping the information she is giving them.  

“I love the actual science of teaching – having the plan in your head, delivering the instruction, and seeing them discover new insights and ideas,” she said.  “I love to get things out of the students that they didn’t know were there.  I try to relate as much of what I teach to the students’ lives.  If they can personally connect with what I’m teaching, then I know that learning will take place.”

Along with making those personal connections during the lesson, Cecilia knows that personal connections alone won’t take the students to the deeper levels of understanding.  One of her strengths, she believes, as a teacher is her ability to ask questions in a way that guides students to a greater depth of learning.

“I’m really good at questioning my students.  What I mean by that is knowing the right questions to ask my students to get them to dig down deeper into the content or take learning to the next level.   It’s a natural thing for me to do and I think the students benefit from that, too,” she said.

Another aspect of teaching that Cecilia keeps top of mind is her enjoyment of teaching.  She believes that learning can be contagious, and that students feed off the energy of their teacher.

“You have to use your personality when teaching.  You have to do anything you can to grab the students’ attention.  If I have to dress up as Abraham Lincoln and tap dance on my desk to get and keep their attention, I’ll do it,” she said.  

“You have to use your personality when teaching.  You have to do anything you can to grab the students’ attention.  If I have to dress up as Abraham Lincoln and tap dance on my desk to get and keep their attention, I’ll do it.” – Cecilia Frost

She also knows that it’s important for students to know that educators enjoy the work.

“The students have to see that the teacher is enjoying their job.  They pick up on things.  If they thought I was miserable doing this job I have to do, they would check out in a second.  I hope they can see that I absolutely want to be here.  There are other things I could do, but I choose to do this,” she said.

Before Covid-19, teaching was an incredibly challenging occupation.  That challenge has only increased post covid.  One of the biggest challenges is helping students navigate being back in school all together for the first time in two years.  

“The last two years have been challenging, but I thought last year, when we had smaller classes and alternating schedules, was really ideal as a teacher.  People would be complaining about it, but I never thought it was difficult,” she explained.  “This year, however, has been tougher because kids are adjusting to being back in school full time for the first time in two years.  They’re readjusting all over again.  We’ve had to go back and really focus on rules and procedures this year.”

As Cecilia reflects on her professional journey, she thinks about what advice she would give to a younger version of herself or any other first year teacher who is just starting out in the field of education.

“If I could give advice to a first year teacher, it would be to take off those rose colored glasses and get real.  Don’t be under any illusions that this job is easy.  It was a baptism by fire for me.  They need to really understand what you’re getting yourself into.  If education and being active really energizes you, then you’ve picked the right path,” she said.

Cecilia clearly picked the right path, and Haywood County Schools is very glad that she did.