A Lesson in Purpose: From a Georgia Teacher of the Year

This story was originally written for The Georgia Vision Project— highlighting the teachers, students, technology, and creativity of the Georgia public school system. This is one of my favorites.

Primary School Class Room.

Amanda Milner loves to learn; anyone who attended elementary, middle, and high school with her knew that. An active and involved student, she was an academic, even an overachiever. Another thing everyone knew about Amanda—she was going to do something really big with her life. She carried that knowledge around with her like a lead weight, doing what so many do when outside feedback drowns out their internal discourse— she ignored her purpose until it finally struck her in the face.

The daughter of a military mother and stepfather, Amanda was fortunate to be a military kid who spent most of her middle and high school years in a single place: Georgia. Curious and ambitious, she soaked in every minute of her schooling in Houston County. Active in academics, athletics, and clubs, she was well liked, successful, and ready to break barriers. She’d be the first in her family to graduate from college.

Amanda entered Valdosta State as a psychology major with the thought she’d later become an attorney; all of this while competing in pageants at the highest levels. “I stayed busy,” laughed Amanda. Her time at Valdosta State would indeed decide her future, but not the way she anticipated, and not without a load of self-doubt.

“I didn’t want to be a teacher.”

In high school Amanda took one of those aptitude tests that so many students take— the one that focuses on your strengths and suggests a career direction. “It all said PEOPLE,” recalled Amanda. “I just knew that I wanted to make a difference; have an impact. Teaching was the farthest thing from my mind.”

While attending college, Amanda got involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters. The child she mentored was a third grader. The teacher of that class would prove to be one of the most important people in her life— Julie Hiers. She blew Amanda away: “I was just as excited about seeing Mrs. Hiers; her teaching style was completely infectious.” It was the first time she connected with how special teaching could be. Then came a call. Julie wanted to know if Amanda could reschedule her mentor day because the student was insisting on skipping a school field trip so she wouldn’t miss her regular day with Amanda. It was a pivotal moment. She was making a difference with this student.

In an instant, Amanda knew exactly what to do. She switched her major. “It was like being brought to life,” explained Amanda. Everything she did was meaningful, purposeful, and engaging. And yet, she found herself hesitant to share the news with people. “Something told me that it wouldn’t be enough,” Amanda tried to explain. “People had all these grand ideas for what I might do with my life. Was teaching enough?”

To her delight, Amanda’s student teaching placement was with her muse, Julie Hiers. It was a time she cherished. It served to cancel out her doubt, and to excite her about getting into her own classroom. But that would have to wait.

Waiting and Doubting

Amanda was crowned Miss Georgia, an honor that required she not work, focusing her efforts instead on traveling as a representative of Georgia, speaking out on her platform as a Miss Georgia, and competing in Miss America. All around the country, she was asked the same question: “What are you going to do next?” At first, her response was earnest and pride-filled; she was going to be a third grade teacher. To her surprise, people often seemed let down. “So many people steered me away from teaching,” reflected Amanda. “It was a confidence shaker; a big one.”

By the time her Miss Georgia obligation was complete, she had wavered enough that she didn’t go into teaching. Instead, she tried acting, even appearing once in a Subway commercial, and traveling to Africa to work with a non-profit before landing at the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE) as a membership recruiter. Never too far away from teaching, it would seem. The more time she spent at GAE, with work that occasionally dropped her into a classroom, the more she craved teaching.

Again, she shifted her path, placing her resume to teach into Houston County where she grew up. For her, it was only natural to teach in her hometown, and to do so in the public school system where she was brought up. She was hired as a PreK teacher, and bounced from grade to grade while earning her stripes, from PreK to 4th and then to 5th grade. For Amanda, all of it was amazing, each day a chance to make a difference.

“She belongs in teaching,” expressed her mentor, Julie Hiers. She describes Amanda as a natural in the classroom, with the magic ingredient that makes some people innately good at the profession. “She absolutely lights up a room, and has a gift for connecting with students.”

Doing something big with her life

A few years ago, Amanda taught a student that acted out in class, bullied fellow students, and struggled academically. It’s impossible to know a child’s circumstances, but something told Amanda that, like all of her students, it was worth the work. It was clear the young lady was both intelligent and capable, but very troubled. Frustratingly, Amanda could never seem to reach her parents for a conference. Then one afternoon, the student’s grandfather came to the school to see the student. She stole him away and carefully explained the situation. A few days later, the girl went to live with her grandparents and things began to improve dramatically. Amanda encouraged her to journal daily, and it soon became clear that writing was not just an outlet for her but something for which she had an exceptional talent. She went on to earn honor roll and win an award for her writing of the Vietnam War.

To Amanda, students like this are a large part of why she teaches. She has the opportunity to reach children that can’t grasp their own potential. It’s a lesson she learned early in life— being encouraged is life altering. “My mother always told me that I mattered and that I can do it,” said Amanda. “I never doubted that I was important or in my ability to succeed.”

“It’s not just the four walls of your classroom,” explained Julie about creating those important connections with students. “You have to dig deep and go beyond to really see what makes students tick. Amanda understands that better than most.”

After teaching for just four years, Amanda was recognized as Teacher of the Year for Houston County.

“I was floored; you don’t go into teaching hoping for awards,” said Amanda. “It can’t be your motivation.” The County recognition put her in the running for 2015 Georgia Teacher of the Year, something she couldn’t fathom. But then she got the call that she was selected. Like Miss Georgia, the title would require her to leave her post for a year to travel, speak, and motivate teachers around the state of Georgia. She was even invited to the Capital, where she brought along the student whose writing she had nurtured. “I had only one student in mind when they extended the invitation,” Amanda said, her voice steady and sure.

While she enjoyed the process of Georgia Teacher of the Year immensely, Amanda was anxious to return to the classroom. So, unlike most recipients of Teacher of the Year who go on to new posts outside the classroom, Amanda went back to school. Today, she teaches third grade, the same as her mentor Julie. “I’m right where I belong,” said Amanda, this time confident of her purpose.

Advertisements