By Mike Marsee
Two teachers whose path to the classroom began at an early age are among Kentucky’s teachers of the year.
Belinda Furman knew when she was 11 years old that she wanted to teach. For Jennifer Meo-Sexton, it took just a few more years.
Furman, a 2nd-grade teacher at Sherman Elementary School (Grant County), was named the 2018 Elementary School Teacher of the Year and Meo-Sexton, a visual arts teacher at Bondurant Middle School (Franklin County), was named the 2018 Middle School Teacher of the Year.
They were chosen from among 24 educators who received Valvoline Inc. Kentucky Teacher Achievement Awards in a program co-sponsored by Valvoline and the Kentucky Department of Education.
Here is a closer look at the two honorees:
Sherman Elementary School
Belinda Furman found Jill Perry at exactly the right time.
Furman lost her mother at age 10, and she said school became a safe place for her and her teachers became her role models. When she entered Perry’s 6th-grade class at the now-closed Mason School in Grant County, she found a teacher who treated her with such love and compassion that the young girl knew that she wanted to be just like her.
“She was the first person that really took an interest in me, encouraging me and trying to see what made me click,” Furman said. “At that time I had closed myself off from so many people, and she really made the attempt to make that connection, that relationship. And she helped me learn to read, because I was a struggling reader at that time. She was that person that I needed to change my life.”
Furman, who has spent her entire 17-year teaching career in Grant County, said she tries to be the same kind of teacher, supporting her students both in her classroom and after they move on.
“I do what I do because of them, and I want to change their lives,” she said. “I hope that I have that kind of positive impact on them, because at the end of the day, that’s the best reward that I can have.”
Furman said she tries to help her students see themselves as individual learners, while also preparing them to be part of a bigger picture as citizens of the world. She said she teaches them to be respectful, have a growth mindset, be reflective thinkers and value the opinion of others.
“Students need to see they can have an impact on others and themselves,” she said. “A few things that I have done to help my students see their impact as community members are the implementation of food drives, random acts of kindness and even book drives to help others.”
Furman uses her own story as a struggling reader as part of the foundation for her daily reading workshop, in which she models for her students a love of reading. She uses the thinking strategies espoused by the Public Education & Business Coalition (PEBC) to help them think about what they are learning. She also allows her students to choose what they read from a wide variety of texts, often checking out 100 or so books from the local public library for her students to read independently following a class reading lesson.
“I believe that the students should have a choice in the texts they read independently so they can learn how to choose appropriate books for themselves as real readers,” she said.
Furman earned a bachelor’s degree from Northern Kentucky University and a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University. She was certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in 2009.
Furman hosts teachers and administrators in her classroom to observe the thinking strategies and best practices she employs, and she recently started a book study meeting with others in the district in which she discusses best practices in mathematics and shares how she implemented a math workshop integrated with the thinking strategies. She also mentors other teachers in positive behavioral intervention and support and in classroom technology used in the district.
She is still friends with Perry, who has followed her success and congratulated her in a text message minutes after Furman received her award.
“You are such an inspiration to all the teachers and the teachers-to-be in the world,” Perry wrote. “I’m so proud of the wonderful person and teacher you’ve become. You’ve always had a special place in my heart.”
Bondurant Middle School
Jennifer Meo-Sexton didn’t know when she graduated from high school that she wanted to teach art – but her mother did.
“When she went to college she tried something different, and I told her, ‘Just follow your heart and what you really want to do,” said Meo-Sexton’s mother, Catherine Meo. “She said, ‘I really want to do art. ‘I said, ‘Go for it,’ and she did.”
Meo-Sexton said she soon realized that she was perfectly suited to teach.
“I’ve always loved art as far back as I can remember, even when I was 3, 4 years old,” she said. “I knew I always loved working with kids, I knew that’s just part of my personality. This was just a perfect fit.”
She said her parents gave her several gifts that prepared her for a life in teaching, including a penchant for noticing her surroundings through an art lens and the willingness to follow her heart.
“My most influential teachers were my art and literature teachers, who made an overwhelming impact on how I create art, teach art and literacy, and help kids unpack hidden levels of success,” Meo-Sexton said.
Like Furman, Meo-Sexton uses the PEBC’s thinking strategies to engage her students. She recently became a learning lab classroom host for PEBC, giving teachers the opportunity to observe the effective use of its thinking strategies. Those methods, Furman said, allow students to safely and confidently share their thinking with peers, which promotes student-led learning.
“Every decision I make is about putting kids first,” she said. “It is about empowering students to uncover their own hidden leadership skills and to build their confidence while helping others in our class and in our community.”
Meo-Sexton earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and she was certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in 2010. She taught at schools in Indiana and New Jersey from 1996-2005 before coming to Franklin County.
She also serves as her school’s recycling coordinator, helping to create a schoolwide recycling initiative out of what began as a basic recycling routine a decade ago. She said her art students become trained recycling team members, while staff, students and their families are involved in the school’s recycling efforts in a variety of capacities.
While Meo-Sexton’s focus is on her students, she remains receptive to learning as well.
“I’ve always been a student. I’ve always been open to learning new things,” she said. “I tell my students that it’s not just about them learning, it’s about all of us learning.”
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