There’s rarely a dull moment in Denise Turner’s Warren Road Elementary kindergarten classroom.
While being told a story about a turkey that avoided becoming a Thanksgiving dinner by disguising itself as a person, students listen for rhyming words and repeat them aloud.
They jump up to waddle like a turkey when Turner sees them getting distracted during the story.
Even on the line out the door, students are singing “a little ditty” Turner wrote to keep them from getting sidetracked.
“I’m going to the hall, I’m not going to the mall, I’m not going to touch the wall,” they chant.
Turner’s talent at keeping easily distracted kindergartners engaged and enriched helped earn her the district’s highest honor this month as the 2014 Richmond County Teacher of the Year.
Contest judge Peter Paige said Turner has an intangible quality that makes her special among some very good educators.
Turner was named district winner among five finalists selected from 59 school-level teachers of the year.
“It was unique, it was on task, it was on point,” Paige said of what he saw in Turner’s class. “I haven’t seen too many like that.
Turner was raised in Augusta and remembers playing school as a child and always demanding to be the teacher. Never feeling a calling for anything else, she graduated from Augusta College in 1989 and began teaching at Wheeless Road Elementary School, where she stayed for 19 years before transferring to Warren Road in 2010.
Turner said she started coming up with little songs and rhymes for students to repeat during transition periods, when she adjusted her overhead projector and during lessons.
“When you have those children, they have to be constantly motivated,” she said. “I’m competing with the computer and games, so of course it helps with that.”
Turner has taken a special interest in getting to know the personal lives of her “little angels,” as she calls them.
When a student has trouble at home, she knows. She gives them nicknames to make them feel special.
With all the additional standardized testing and new standards-based curriculum over the years, Turner said it is important for her to keep her personality and upbeat teaching style intact.
“It’s all made me think outside the box and be more creative, but it’s still me,” she said.
She said many teachers are as dedicated as her but are rarely acknowledged. Before the banquet this month, she treated herself to a manicure and pedicure, which she rarely does, and made changes to her acceptance speech in the car with her eyeliner.
“I don’t think I’m anybody special, I’m not perfect, I’m not better than anyone, but this was my year with these changing times,” she said.
Vanessa Patten, a first-grade teacher at Wheeless Road, has worked with Turner for about seven years. She said Turner’s ability to invent strategies that keep students engaged is rare.
She said Turner made the school a better place by sharing ideas and routines with other teachers.
“A lot of the rituals and routines that I’ve put in place now were things I saw her doing with her students,” Patten said. “Things like getting the students to refocus and transition before a new activity. I think I became a better educator just being in her periphery.”