Originally created 11/16/00

That's `edu-tainment'



If you're expecting a geometry class that's filled with only measurements of lines, angles and surfaces, then you're in for a surprise when you visit Rosita Alston-Grissom's class.

The Glenn Hills High school math teacher creates innovative projects for her students that they say foster an enjoyment of math.

From classical music playing on the stereo, to a display of colorful symmetrical patterns cross-stitched by students and snowflakes made of paper dangling from the ceiling, her classroom offers a less intimidating feel for students.

That's the mood the 23-year veteran was going for.

"I could be a traditional teacher, but it would not be good for the students or for me," she said. "It's hard motivating high schoolers, so I try to have all kinds of things to interest them. Some call it `edu-tainment,' because you have to educate and entertain them."

Her "edu-taining" skills will be recognized Monday by Richmond County school officials.

Ms. Alston-Grissom joins four other Richmond County teachers as finalist for Teacher of the Year.

The finalists were selected by school administrators from a list of 58 star teachers - chosen from each of the county's schools. Other finalists are: Judith M. Mealing, a chemistry and biology teacher at A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering Magnet school; Carol L. Scharff, a third-grade teacher at Barton Chapel Elementary School; Nmaobi Uzochukwu, a physical science and physics teacher at Westside High school; and Jennifer G. White, a fourth-grade teacher at Goshen Elementary School.

The winner will be announced Monday during a banquet at 7 p.m. at Radisson Riverfront Hotel Augusta. The current titleholder is Julie Purvis, a math teacher at John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet High School.

Ms. Alston-Grissom was a finalist in 1997-98 but said she knew she would not win when she found out Andy Baumgartner, a kindergarten teacher at A. Brian Merry - who taught her children - was among the competitors. Mr. Baumgartner won that year and went on to become state and national Teacher of the Year.

Because this is her second nomination, Ms. Alston-Grissom said she's a little calmer.

"It was more like a fantasy the first time," she said. "But I've matured in this. If the judges select me, I'll have it; if not, I'm still a Teacher of the Year and a finalist, and I'm still a good teacher no matter what anyone decides."

She said, however, that she didn't choose teaching. It chose her.

Originally from Bronx, New York, she moved to Augusta in 1977 when her husband began a job at Savannah River Site.

She majored in math and sociology but planned to attend law school.

When she moved, she took a job teaching because she needed the money and there was an open position.

"When I moved here, there was nothing else to do," she said. "But I stayed a teacher because I found out that's what I was supposed to be. It was my calling. I knew it was the right thing for me the minute I stepped into the classroom."

Her first day at Glenn Hills, however, was not a day of joy.

"The first day was awful," she said. "The kids were awful, and moving here from New York, I didn't have any friends."

The second year she didn't have her own classroom and had to carry her teaching tools from room to room. She also received a salary of $5,000 per year.

"The teachers I started to make friends with told me, `I wouldn't stay here. It's not worth it; it's not enough money,"' she said. "But I loved it so much. You know how you complain about something but you know it's your love?"

The discord during the beginning years didn't sway her to quit, but a diagnosis of cancer 14 years ago made her rethink her career.

Tears rolled down her face as she recalled when the diagnosis came.

"I thought about giving up teaching then," she said. "Giving up everything. I was thinking about my kids and what I would do if I didn't live.

"But, my career was one of the things that helped me survive," she said. "I started looking for better methods of teaching and reading more. I wanted to grab everything I could before I left here, and it opened some doors for me because I started doing things I would have never done."

Her cancer went into remission but reappeared last year in her hip, causing her to have a limp. The second bout is also in remission.

"These are tears of joy," she said. "I got a lot of support around here, and I love my students."

Her students seem to share her affection.

"She's all that when it comes to geometry," sophomore Darius Stringer said. "I've learned a lot, and I'm still learning. I hate to leave her, but I'm going to have to pass this class."

Cavana Hatcher, another sophomore in Ms. Alston-Grissom's class, said her teacher has helped her gain a passion for math.

"It's not all about work," Cavana said. "She helps us make quilts, and we made the snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, and we do other projects. She makes you want to come to math."

In addition to making sure Darius, Cavana and the other 23 students in the class understand the course work, she makes sure a Puerto Rican student in her class - who speaks limited English - understands.

On a recent Thursday, she spoke fluent Spanish to the student as she described the coursework.

Her students, she says, are what motivates her to continue.

"That one student that says `I've got it,"' Ms. Alston-Grissom said. "If you could put that in a bottle and just breathe it in any time you want to, it would be magnificent. It's such a good feeling, especially when they are struggling. My hair stands up on the back of my neck."

Ms. Alston-Grissom also has helped the school. She's applied for and received 10 grants since she began teaching at Glenn Hills, including three for more than $140,000. Some of the money was used as bonuses for teachers, some for school equipment.

Glenn Hills Principal Calvin Holland said his star teacher is an asset.

"She is one of the most dedicated teachers I have worked with," Mr. Holland said. "She's innovative, energetic and is very enthusiastic about her work. She also has established a good rapport with her students and the faculty."

And she will continue in the profession she loves as long as she can.

"I love being a teacher," she said. "The students and I are happy together."

Reach Faith Johnson at (706) 823-3765.

Rosita Alston-Grissom

Age: 45

Family: Children, Rogelio, 23, Raina, 21, Mercedes, 16, and Alegra, 8

Education: Bachelor of arts in math and sociology from Russell Sage College in Troy, N.Y.; master's degree in technology education from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.

Years teaching: 23, all at Glenn Hills High School

Honors: Teacher of the Year finalist for 1997-98; received 1999 Target Teacher scholarship; recognized May 16 by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for exceptional teaching achievements; a Tandy Technology scholarship recipient for outstanding teaching in science, math and computer science

Motto: "I tell my students, you are your own best friend. Learn to share when it doesn't hurt you."

Hobbies: Collecting clowns, making arts and crafts, and working on the computer