Florida’s Teacher of the Year focuses on social, emotional learning

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Editor’s note: redefinED is paying tribute to National Charter Schools Week with this spotlight on Joy Prescott, 2019 Florida Teacher of the Year. To learn more about the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, click here. To read an earlier story about Prescott, a fourth-grade teacher at Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Glades County, click here.

Joy Prescott took the stage at Pompano Beach High School sporting a smile any early-morning TV host would envy.

Joy Prescott, 2019 Florida Teacher of the Year

Before about 200 members of the Broward County chapter of Florida Future Educators of America, the Florida Department of Education’s 2019 Teacher of the Year shared her reasons for never wanting to be anything but an educator – and why the profession is critically important.

A fourth-grade teacher at Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School on a Seminole Indian reservation in rural Glades County, Prescott is Florida’s first charter school educator to be named Teacher of the Year. She had not prepared remarks in advance, but easily kept the students engaged. They used phone apps during her talk to answer questions she posed on a large screen.

When she asked them to use one word to describe their favorite teacher, their answers came quickly: supportive, loving, truthful, engaging, passionate, funny.

“These are the things you want to see in a teacher,” Prescott said. “So, when you become a teacher, strive to be these things.”

She selected social and emotional learning as her focus as Teacher of the Year.

“As teachers, we have to continue to teach reading, writing, math, science and social studies, but we also have to develop the social and emotional skills of our students,” Prescott said. “We have to embrace, engage and empower the whole student. We need to teach them to develop self-confidence, respect for others, and to appreciate diversity.”

The social and emotional aspects of teaching weren’t clear to Prescott until her first day at New Endeavor High School, where she accepted the challenge of being a fourth-grade teacher in a dropout prevention class. She had taught at several traditional public schools in nearby Okeechobee County, but this assignment was different.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this will be the most difficult year,’” she told the crowd of future educators. “The kids were socially isolated. They’d get angry at the drop of a hat. Respect? Forget it. I had to change my style of teaching and think out of the box. That year, I realized I needed a student-centered classroom.”

Prescott recalled that she had to teach the students how to communicate and empathize with each other.

“They had to learn how to work together,” she said. “It was like structured chaos. But by February, the climate in the classroom had changed. They learned the skills to get along together and communicate.”

By the end of the year, the class had made significant academic progress, especially on their writing scores.

“I thought, ‘Wow, what was the difference?’” Prescott said.

It was simple.

“Students learn better when they’re safe and happy and feel like they fit in,” she said. “These are the skills we have to give them.”

Prescott’s philosophy, energy and dedication were traits Pemayetv Emahakv’s principal Brian Greseth was looking for when he needed a fourth-grade teacher in 2013. It didn’t hurt that Greseth had known Prescott since she was 5, when he was her physical education teacher in Glades County.

“She takes a lot of interest in the individual student,” Greseth said. “When you go to her classroom, she’s on stage. She’s always going, going, going, and the kids are right there with her. She knows how to talk to them. She teaches them to express themselves and feel confident in what they’re doing.”

In 22 years as a principal, Greseth has seen a lot of teachers who “know their stuff.”

“They could have a master’s or doctorate in certain fields, but it’s all about how you go about it,” he said. “Teach in an interesting way, not just with an eye on standards.”

About 300 students attend Pemayetv Emahakv (which means “our way” in English), and most of them live on the reservation. As the students learn reading, writing and arithmetic, they are immersed in their heritage. School activities include fishing, basket weaving, dollmaking, sewing intricate patterns and horseback riding.

Prescott acknowledged that she has more freedom to address students’ behavioral and academic issues at Pemayetv Emahakv than she would have at a traditional public school. Her class size ranges from 10 to 12 students each year. Each teacher has a full-time aide, allowing for more personalized attention to students.

“Being a teacher at this school has also allowed me to have more freedom in deciding the best way for my students to learn the standards,” she said. “I am not tied to a certain curriculum like a lot of public school teachers are around the nation.”

Nancy Jimmie’s oldest daughter Miley was in Prescott’s class last year. She said Miley always struggled with reading, but Prescott helped change that.

“Ms. Prescott just coached her all year and it definitely worked,” Jimmie said. “Miley wound up getting a 5 on her (Florida Standards Assessment) reading test, and that’s as high as you can get.”

Jimmie said she hopes her younger daughter Marley, a third grader, will be in Prescott’s class when she returns from her Teacher of the Year sabbatical.

Don’t let the word “sabbatical” fool you. While Prescott has not been in the classroom every day this year, she has traveled to about 30 Florida counties to speak with future-educator groups, attended various conferences and has given talks “to elevate and celebrate” the profession of teaching.

The hardest part, she said, has been being away from her family: husband Eddie, a ranch manager, and their three children, Cody, 21, Laci, 13, and Case, 9.

After all, it was her own family that helped inspire her to be a teacher.

She grew up in a paycheck-to-paycheck household in Okeechobee County, where her father was a plumber and her mother drove a school bus.

“My parents told me, ‘We want you to be somebody. We want you to be better than us,’” Prescott said. “To them, being a teacher was being somebody. A teacher was to someone to be respected and listened to.”

Her aspiration to become a teacher was solidified when she was in sixth grade.

That year, her favorite teacher, Andrew Taylor, put up a live Christmas tree in his classroom. Prescott’s family had never had a tree, and she marveled openly at its beauty.

Just before Christmas break, Taylor had the students put their names in a hat for a drawing. The winner would get to take the tree home for the holidays.

Taylor drew the winner’s name: Joy Prescott.

Prescott was overjoyed. That evening, her parents drove 20 miles to the school and loaded the tree in the back of their pickup truck. Later that night, she went through her pockets and found a tiny piece of paper – with her name on it.

She had forgotten to put her name in the hat.

It was clear by their silence that the auditorium of future educators had just learned something.