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NCSS names Teacher of the Year finalists

Ashley Rickard, AP English teacher at Eastside High School, reacts in surprise when told that she had been named a Newton County Teacher of the Year finalist. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)

Ashley Rickard, AP English teacher at Eastside High School, reacts in surprise when told that she had been named a Newton County Teacher of the Year finalist. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)

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Third grade Heard-Mixon Elementary School teacher Maria Hargrove cried tears of joy after learning that she was named a finalist for the Newton County School System Teacher of the Year award. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)

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Newton College and Career Academy math teacher Dolores Williams couldn’t stop smiling Friday morning after school officials visited her class and congratulated her on being one of three finalists for the NCSS Teacher of the Year Award. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)

COVINGTON — Three Newton County teachers received exciting — and unexpected — news Friday when they were surprised to learn they were named as the top three finalists to be Newton County’s Teacher of the Year.

“This is the best school day of the year,” said Newton County School System Public Relations Director Sherri Davis-Viniard as she led a group of school board members, central office staff, and friends and family of one of the winning teachers into the school to surprise not only the teacher but also that school’s principal and staff.

NCSS and the Newton County Chamber of Commerce announced on Monday the 2012-13 school-level Teachers of the Year. Each teacher was selected by his or her peers as Teacher of the Year at the end of the 2012-13 school year. These teachers will now participate in the county program with the winner serving as the Newton County School System’s 2014 Teacher of the Year.

Each of the school-level Teachers of the Year submitted essays and interviewed with a panel of judges. The three candidates earning the highest point totals were named finalists to be the systemwide Teacher of the Year.

The identities of the three teachers were kept confidential and not even Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey or school board members knew who they were until the bus carrying them pulled into each school Friday morning.

• Ashley Rickard — Eastside High School

Ashley Rickard was nearly speechless when Superintendent Fuhrey walked into her classroom with a basket of flowers and a balloon, followed by members of her family.

“It’s surreal,” she said.

Rickard has been teaching AP English at Eastside High School for five years. She graduated in 2008 with a degree in secondary English education from Georgia Southern University and is expected to complete her master’s degree in instructional technology from the University of West Georgia next year.

In addition to teaching, Rickard is actively involved in public service. For instance, she created the Random Acts of Kindness initiative at EHS where students are encouraged to share instances where they practice random acts of kindness. She and her students also raised $1,300 for the American Cancer Society. Additionally, Rickard has taught a free GED course at the Athens Latino Center for Education and Services.

She said her teaching philosophy is to “help students learn how to learn.”

Rickard said she likes to keep her classroom lively and interesting to keep her students on their toes.

“When my students fall in love with writing — which they always do — I feel like I’ve done my job,” she said.

• Maria Hargrove — Heard-Mixon Elementary School

Maria Hargrove became emotional when she was presented with the congratulatory basket of flowers by Fuhrey.

“I’m so shocked,” she said. “I am so excited. I feel so blessed in so many ways.”

Hargrove began her teaching career in 2005 as a kindergarten teacher and now teaches third grade at Heard-Mixon. Hargrove’s history with Heard-Mixon is extensive, having attended the school herself as an elementary student.

“The first-grade teacher across the hall was my teacher and now she’s my colleague,” Hargrove said.

Hargrove graduated in 2004 from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. She obtained her education specialist degree in 2008 from Georgia College and will begin a doctoral program next summer.

Hargrove is participates in a number of volunteer organizations. She is active with Eastridge Community Church, Refuge Pregnancy Center, Samaritan’s Purse and Angel Tree. She also offers free after-school tutoring and summer tutoring for students.

“Everything in my classroom is not about me, but about my kids,” Hargrove said. “The best thing is when at the end of the day, the kids say, ‘Is it already time to go home?’ … I’m just overwhelmed and excited.”

• Dolores Williams — Newton College and Career Academy

Dolores Williams could not believe she was named a finalist as Superintendent Fuhrey interrupted her calculus class.

“You are kidding me!” Williams said. “Wow! I am shaking.”

Williams has been teaching since 1998 when she made a career move from the business world where she worked for 20 years as a supervisor at Hercules (now FiberVision). Deciding to follow in her mother’s footsteps, Williams began working as a paraprofessional and quickly moved to teaching math at Newton High School. She worked at Alcovy High School before transferring to the Newton College and Career Academy in 2010.

Williams earned a degree in 1997 in computer science from Mercer University and her master’s degree in 2000 in secondary math from Piedmont College and her specialist degree from Valdosta State University in 2006.

Williams is active with her church, volunteers to feed the poor and has been a host family for a foreign exchange student.

When it comes to the classroom, Williams believes in inspiring her students to “reach places they don’t think they can reach.”

“The kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” she said. “You have to first learn who they are as people and then you can teach them math.”

The Teacher of the Year will be named at a reception at 4:45 p.m. Sept. 26 at Newton High School.