A banner hanging in her classroom urges her students to “Prove who wrong? Prove them wrong.”
Tasha Morman, a fifth-grade science and social studies teacher at St. Marys Road Magnet Academy, explained the message.
“Anyone that doesn’t believe in you, anyone that says anything that goes against your vision or your dreams, literally even if it’s someone in your household, if they don’t believe in you, we’re going to prove them wrong,” she said. “What do we need to do to help them know that you can make good grades? What do we need to do to help them realize that you are more than enough, that you are smart, that you are beautiful, that you will be someone.”
Overcoming a rough childhood, Morman, 42, embodies such perseverance. Thursday night, the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation announced her as the Muscogee County School District 2023 Teacher of the Year.
During the Ledger-Enquirer’s visit Friday to St. Marys, principal Latonya Hamilton recalled Morman telling her upon joining the school’s faculty four years ago, “I’m going to make you proud.”
Morman indeed has done that.
“She comes in every day with a smile on her face,” Hamilton said. “She inspires others, not only the students but the teachers, the parents, the community, and we love her.”
Morman develops a “great relationship” with all her students, Hamilton said, by taking the time to know them and help them.
“She notices every student,” Hamilton said. “She sees the frustration on their faces. She kind of pays attention to moods and students who are not necessarily at their best, and she homes in on those things and makes sure that the students still are successful.”
Just ask 11-year-olds Trinity Davis and Sammuel Edwards, two of Morman’s students. They described her as funny, energetic, passionate and supportive.
By noticing students’ body language, Trinity said, Morman helps them solve social and emotional problems.
“If she sees that your attitude is off that day,” Trinity said, “she’ll take you outside, let you calm down, talk to you about what’s happening, and then she’ll make sure it doesn’t bleed into your academics so you can still cope with what you’re doing at home and have good academics at school.”
Sammuel recalled the time when Morman asked the students to write down “all of our problems” and rip up those papers and throw them away to focus on academics. He also appreciates when Morman takes him aside.
“I can get upset easily over something, so she will take me out and calm me down and talk to me,” he said. “She’s like a really great person at that too.”
When she hears Morman share with her students stories about overcoming her own childhood struggles, Trinity said, it “gives the students motivation to keep going and to do what they want when they think that they can’t.”
After the St. Marys employees and students welcomed Morman to school Friday with a celebration of her award, she sat down with the L-E for an interview. Here are highlights, edited for brevity and clarity:
So what’s the past 12 hours been like for you?
“Full of emotions. The last 12 hours, I have cried more than I’ve ever had. I finally was able to get some sleep because two days prior, I wasn’t able to sleep, just because of nerves and the unknown and the unexpected. So full of emotion, full of love, full of love knowing I’m impacting more than I even realized I was.”
What were you thinking and feeling as the school celebrated your award?
“Pulling in the parking lot, just to see the sign congratulating me, it started then. Then, Ms. Hamilton had the radio station (Foxie 105) to give me a shout-out and play ‘Congratulations,’ which is a cool song my students love. … Walking in and seeing all of the love and support and seeing all of the little ones, even the kindergartners I’ve been playing with here recently, it was very overwhelming. I couldn’t do anything but smile and try not to cry.”
As MCSD’s Teacher of the Year, you are considered a spokesperson for education. So what’s a change you want to advocate for or an overall message you want to spread?
“I think the message probably would be just two words: See them. And that’s for the teachers. Speaking on behalf of the students that have the different deficits and behavior issues, and they lack the tools needed for them to succeed. A lot of times, they get passed up because of those behaviors. But to really dig deep into seeing what the actual issue is, because once we understand what that issue is and know what’s their why and why they’re behaving the way they are, it’ll strengthen our way, and it will help us be able to push through.
“See them also means for you to see your fellow teachers and see the struggles going on and be there as a motivation or encouragement to them, because a lot of times we’re going through the same things, but all we see is our own issues and our own problems.”
The selection committee was impressed with the connection you have with your students, the trust and respect they have for you. How do you create that connection and why is it important?
“I develop the trust and respect, first and foremost, by being vulnerable and transparent with my students, to a degree they can understand, of course, because it lets them know that I’m human. … I’ve been through a lot of the same challenges that they have. So once they’re in a place where they see I’m just like them, then it opens the door to where they can trust me. Then I can teach them.”
When you say vulnerable, what do you tell your students about yourself?
“They know the type of community that I lived in, that I grew up in. They know some of the struggles that are similar. There were nights I went to bed crying. … I would come to school some days hungry, but I did have some teachers that made sure they have food, just like I do in my pantry area (in the classroom). There were plenty of nights where I only got a couple (hours) of sleep because the people in the apartment next to us might have been extremely loud. I pretty much had to raise myself because my parents worked.”
Where did you grow up?
“All over the place. We started off in Silver Spring, Maryland, but we did a lot of traveling. … D.C, Virginia, Atlanta, Seneca, South Carolina, Georgia, a lot of places.”
You’ve mentioned overcoming a tough childhood, even said you were a “bad student” and “wanted to end it all,” but teachers wouldn’t allow you to give up. Can you explain the challenges you persevered through and how?
“A lot of teachers, when they would call home (during) report card time, the first things out of their mouth was that, ‘She was bad. She didn’t want to sit still. She always wanted to talk. She always was standing up and out of her seat after I told her to sit down. You need to get her diagnosed. She may have some sort of mental issue going on.’ … But what they failed to realize was the reason why I couldn’t sit still was because I was either thinking about things that went on at home, or I was possibly just bored, or it was too challenging and above my head. So instead of taking the time to find out what was going on, they just considered me as being bad.
“… I had some family crises, and it had been back-to-back-back. So I got in a head space to where I didn’t care about living anymore. But luckily I had Coach (Charles) Hembree (of Woodruff High School in South Carolina), who refused to allow me to accept that mind frame.”
How did Coach Hembree help you?
“He didn’t give up, and that was huge for me because I felt as though everyone pretty much gave up but him. … He would literally come by (one of her classes in high school) and say, ‘Today is a new day. We’re starting over today. You can only go up from here. We’re not worried about yesterday. We’re starting fresh today.’ This was every single day. … I think that was the moment for me, when he started forcing me to repeat it. … The more you say it, the more you’re going to believe it.”
So you weren’t diagnosed with any medical issue? You just needed adults to love you and to boost your confidence, right?
Why did you first become a social worker and then switch your career to become a teacher?
“I didn’t know I wanted to help kids, but I knew I wanted to help people. Then, later on, … I got to the point where I realized, ‘They’re going to become adults one day, so why not catch them while they’re younger?” That impact or those things will be instilled in them at an early age. So by the time they’re adults, they won’t have the same struggles.”
“… When I was doing group counseling, I had a young man who would always bring his daughter with him. She would always ask me questions because she was trying to get her homework done. So that’s where it started, him telling me that because of my interaction with her — she even called me Mom — that was the moment that let him know it was time for him to change, and so that’s when my light bulb (to become a teacher) went off as well.”
When you’re teaching social studies and science, you’re teaching more than those subjects. Clearly, you teach the content standards, but you also emphasize life lessons, right?
“Yes. … Being able to use my social work skills and being able to prepare them for life and deal with those different challenges, I think that’s probably my No. 1 (priority). … So if something’s happening, we stop the class.”
“Just last week, I had a student who was going through things. He was really overwhelmed at home. … He was a little angry. … He went to the ‘Calm Down Corner’ (in her classroom), couldn’t get himself together. So he finally raised his hand and was like, ‘I’m mad,’ and I said, ‘OK, well, let’s talk about it.’ So he expressed his feelings. Before I chime in, I allow the other students to help first because that helps them, and it helps other students going through the same thing but just refuse to say anything. So they open up. Then, after all that is said and done, we get back to our lesson.”
What was the advice from the consensus of the class to make that a teachable moment?
“That it’s OK to have feelings. It’s OK to be angry. But it’s what you do in those moments of anger. It’s how you respond, even if you don’t say the words out loud. … Just giving different strategies of how to respond in moments you feel that you can’t control it.”
What are those different strategies?
“The first thing is to go to the Calm Down Corner. They grab the clipboards that are back there and a piece of paper, and they write down their feelings. So we’re still using ELA (English language arts) because you have to do the who, what, when, where, why and how in your response. Then, after that, you read it over. Then you take your deep breaths. If that doesn’t help, you’re allowed to stand right outside the door. But you have to keep your foot in the door. … If I don’t see your toe, then that concerns me, and I’ll come to the door. … That’s when our conversation starts.”
“Re-diagnose your why because your why can change. … It definitely has shifted because of the needs of my children. … We have to remember that these people, they genuinely are our future, so we have to make sure they’re prepared.”
What’s your view about standardized testing? How should we measure the academic performance of students and their teachers, schools and school districts?
“Oftentimes we as teachers, we get so caught up in the data, in the tests, that we forget about the students. We push, push, push, and then they’re on overload. Then the students explode, which causes the teachers to explode. … It shouldn’t be the only way we determine success in our students or our teachers.”
What else would you put in that assessment package?
“I had one student that was suspended about 50 times. This year, he’s only been suspended twice. That is major growth. I’m able to keep him class. I’m able to keep him in school to teach him what he needs to be successful. That’s the type of thing we should be able to determine to see their growth.”
Please help us understand the challenging home environments many of your students come from.
“Some examples would be lack of food or just a lack of place to lay their heads, which of course ends up affecting their hygiene. We keep deodorant. We keep changes of clothes. I have food., even if it’s like just a breakfast bar. … Some haven’t had any sleep. You can’t sleep my whole class period, … but you can take one of the pillows and go in the Calm Down Corner and lay your head down for a few minutes to get yourself together. Some may be raising siblings, so they bring that to school because they’re tired or exhausted. Some are in homes where their parents have to work, so they’re not at home with them as much as they should be to nurture them and show them how to love. So it’s my job to show them what love is.”
Are some of them also coming from violent home environments?
“There definitely is a lot of violence, whether that be in the home. There are gangs that I hear about from the students. There have been burglaries, shootings in the area, so when they come here, … they know it’s a safe place.”
What’s the most important thing parents can do to immediately help their children succeed in school?
“Form a relationship with the teachers. When we call, answer. We’re not always calling to tell you something’s wrong. I make it a point to tell you just as much right as wrong. Even if it’s calling to say, ‘Hey, he stayed awake all class,’ or, ‘Hey, she didn’t take her shoes off and throw them at anybody.’ … Call (the teacher) to check on the student. Don’t wait until it’s grade time. You take the initiative.”