CORNELIUS – At 7:40 a.m. on a Friday, more than an hour before the first class of a normal school day begins, about a dozen fifth-graders arrive for some personalized math instruction at Cornelius Elementary School (CES).
In a classroom decorated with numbers, charts, photographs and – on this morning, hidden answers to a quiz – teacher Sarah Patterson is waiting. She greets the early arrivals, offers them doughnuts and then quickly gets them settled in for the day’s Math Club lesson.
“Isn’t it impressive that these kids are here this early to work on math,” Patterson declares with a broad smile as she moves from desk to desk to address student questions and remind them of the steps involved in deciphering and solving word problems dealing with fractions.
The weekly Math Club meetings are tutoring classes Patterson offers to give students a chance to gain a better understanding of classroom lessons.
“They just need a little push, a way to get a little more practice with the subject,” Patterson said about the students who voluntarily participate. “It helps them feel more confident about math.”
Patterson stops at each desk, monitoring student progress and, instead of providing direct answers, encourages the students to work through the problem. The advice is offered with a smile and, often, an encouraging pat on the back.
Patterson’s involvement in the Math Club is just one aspect of her role as a fifth-grade science and math teacher at CES. And it’s just one example of her dedication to education cited in a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) announcement recognizing Patterson as the North Learning Community’s Teacher of the Year (TOY).
During a recent ceremony secretly organized by CES Principal Jessica Holbrook, Patterson was surprised when her husband, the couple’s two children and CMS North Learning Community Superintendent Matthew Hayes arrived to join school faculty members in delivering the news. The veteran teacher, who has worked for CMS for 14 years and is in her fourth year at CES, is one of nine learning community TOYs now being considered for district-wide TOY honors.
“Sarah is the epitome of what it means to be a teacher of excellence,” Holbrook said in a CMS release about Patterson’s selection. “She has the unique gift of competency along with compassion. She truly puts her heart into her teaching each day and goes above and beyond to support her diverse learners.”
A chance to speak out
Patterson said she was “definitely surprised” by the recognition, and also encouraged to use the regional TOY recognition as a platform to share some personal experiences about the impact schools can have not just in education but in the complete lives of young people.
“I feel all of this is happening for a reason,” Patterson said. “I think this will give me the chance to open up about some events in my life and emphasize the important role CMS is playing in addressing mental health issues.”
Patterson said her brother, after a continuous struggle with depression, died about five years ago.
“I haven’t really talked about, just kept it to myself,” Patterson said. “But my brother was very sad, and he ended up committing suicide. I think the issues that contributed to that are things we should be talking about, things we should make sure continue to be addressed by the schools.”
Patterson said her brother’s death had a profound impact on her, and the way she treats students in her classes.
“I know young people are dealing with a lot of issues and pressures, some we know about and some we can’t see,” Patterson said. “And I believe it is very important that we acknowledge these concerns and do everything we can to help.”
Patterson said she makes an effort to get to know everything she can about her students, because a lot of factors are involved in determining their approach to school, their attitude and their performance.
“I want to help the whole child, get to know them and learn about their family,” she said. “And I think it’s important for them to know we all want the best for them. Every child needs our encouragement, and I believe it is very important for children to feel successful and supported in what they do.”
“I want to be open about my experiences and the role schools can fill,” Patterson added. “I believe it is vital that we make mental health and the well-being of all students something we are all comfortable talking about. And that is a subject I plan to speak about whenever I can.”
Patterson and other learning community TOYs are participating in interview and evaluation activities supervised by CMS officials. An announcement of the district’s TOY is scheduled for May 19.