This week, both Richmond and Columbia counties will announce their Teacher of the Year winners. Augusta University is proud to have alumni representing three out of the five finalists for Richmond County Teacher of the Year and two out of the five finalists for Columbia County Teacher of the Year.
Dr. Judi Wilson, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Augusta University, said she could not be prouder of all of the finalists.
“We work extremely hard to prepare our students well for the realities of the classroom,” Wilson said. “Our graduates are well equipped with the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to be highly effective teachers. Our AU alums consistently represent us with excellence and that is evident from the number of Teacher of the Year finalists we have each year. It is a joy and honor to celebrate their powerful stories of impact with our community.”
The Richmond County Teacher of the Year will be named during a banquet at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6 at the Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center. The winner of the Columbia County Teacher of the Year Award will be announced at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5 at White Oak Road Farm.
Richmond County Teacher of the Year: AU alumni finalists
Shikara Willis – C.T. Walker Magnet School
Shikara Willis remembers the exact year she decided to become a teacher. She was in the third grade at Bungalow Road Elementary School in Richmond County.
She began the year full of joy and smiling every day in class, excited to be at school. But a few months later, her smile had vanished and her third-grade teacher, Eleanor Lambert, immediately noticed something was wrong.
“My family was going through a difficult time and Mrs. Lambert noticed that my light had dimmed,” Willis said. “She was always really attentive to the students. And she suddenly saw that happy little girl that used to hop on in to her third-grade class was no longer there. So, she quickly took an interest in what was going on in my life, as well as with my family. The impact that she had on me was absolutely amazing.”
Willis paused a moment, trying to hold back tears.
“She did it for me. She is my why. She is my reason that I went into teaching,” Willis said. “Even in the third grade, I had this whole idea that if I could be half of what she was to me to somebody else, then it will be worthwhile.”
For the past 19 years, Willis has taught students in both Richmond and Burke counties by leading with her heart.
“I think teaching takes a heart of service in order to be able to work with children each day,” she said. “Everybody can’t do it because it’s not easy. You have to love it.”
Willis, who earned her Specialist in Advanced Studies degree from Augusta University, has taught fifth-grade English at C.T. Walker Magnet School for the past six years. She began her career at Blakeney Elementary School in Burke County, also teaching fifth-grade English.
“I like to call myself a 10-year-old professional,” Willis said, laughing. “I know 10-year-old kids because that’s all I’ve ever taught. I don’t know any other age. But 10- to 11-year-old kids, I get them. I know those kids.”
At that age, the students can be a challenge, but Willis says she understands their struggles.
“I remember one of my very first students when I was teaching in Burke County, named Reginald. I still occasionally see him because he is a grown-up now living in Augusta. He won’t mind me saying this, but when he was in third grade, I really think his motivation every single day was, ‘I am either going to make you or break you,’” Willis said, chuckling. “Believe me, I had his mom’s number on speed dial. She would talk to him and he would get back in line. But there were times when I thought, ‘This is it. I cannot do this anymore.’ It was my first year of teaching.”
But when Willis runs into Reginald now as an adult, he always tells her how much she meant to him, she said.
“When I see him, I remind him of the hard time he gave me and he smiles this beautiful smile and tells me, ‘Yeah, but I really liked you. Thank you. You were a great teacher,’” Willis said. “I even run into his grandmother and she says that I was one of his favorite teachers, but even she will joke, ‘I don’t even know how you did it with him.’ And I’m honest with her and always say, ‘Ma’am, I don’t know either. Grace and mercy.’”
Over the years, Willis has attended some of her former students’ graduations and followed their careers because she wants her current and former students to know that she cares about their future.
When Willis learned that she was a finalist for Teacher of the Year in Richmond County, she was floored.
“I have to say, when I was selected as Teacher of the Year for C.T. Walker, I was really humbled because there are so many of the teachers here who give the very best that we have and we work hard together as a team for the benefit of the children,” she said. “Then, to be one of the finalists in the county, that was just the icing on the cake.”
Willis said her 14-year-old twins surprised her by saying, “Mom, you know, you’ve always been a Teacher of the Year in our hearts.”
But Willis said her husband’s words after the announcement really moved her: He told her how much she deserved the recognition.
“It meant a lot because he has seen the days of frustration and the days of joy,” she said. “He knows about me having to purchase things for some of the children, especially when I was in Burke County, who didn’t have the money to purchase items. He knows about me telling some of the kids, ‘Leave your bookbag behind. When you are in P.E., I’ll put food in your bag for the weekend for you and your sister.’ He knows how much I care about these kids.”
Martina Anderson – McBean Elementary School
When Martina Anderson found out she was a finalist for Richmond County Teacher of the Year, she couldn’t believe it.
She found out after being called into the office under the pretense of helping with a computer problem. Then, the principal of McBean Elementary School made the announcement over the loudspeaker to the entire school, leaving Anderson shocked.
“I’m like, ‘Me? Really, me?’” said Anderson. “I don’t do anything but my job and I’m just trying to help. It’s all overwhelming and humbling.”
Anderson has been in the classroom for 28 years. Her beginning, though, didn’t start like most teachers. She worked in the private sector before making the switch. She got her bachelor’s degree from Augusta University in sociology and criminology with a minor in international studies.
But she wasn’t being fulfilled at her first job and felt like she wasn’t giving back to the community as she wanted. Some of her good friends were high school teachers and they pointed her in that direction.
Her first job was at her alma mater, Glenn Hills High School, where she taught social studies. The school started putting some special education students in her classroom, which eventually led to her getting a master’s degree from Augusta University in special education.
“They put a lot of special needs kids in my classroom because I worked well with them and I could reach them a little better than most, I guess,” Anderson said. “I have more patience. I enjoyed working with the students and decided to give it a try. So, I went back and got my degree in special education.”
For seven years, she concentrated on teaching special needs students. While she enjoyed it, she realized she was only working with a small population of students. This led her to branch out and become a media specialist, so she could reach students throughout the entire school.
“I thought I could reach more students that way and work with each grade level,” she said. “I could go into the classrooms and help teachers develop lessons, and that was at the forefront of technology.”
It was then she moved into National Hills Elementary School and found her true calling in the teaching profession.
“I got there and I loved it. I love elementary because I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what they need at that young age,’” she said. “Hopefully, it’ll be a good foundation to build upon.”
Anderson is now at McBean Elementary and has been there for more than a decade. She said it is one of the top elementary schools in Richmond County and consistently has the highest test scores.
Anderson admits it was a big adjustment going from teaching in high school to elementary, but said it’s certainly been worthwhile and fulfilling.
“They are lovely little people,” Anderson said. “They like to hug and they just love on you and they just want to be loved. They’re more readily available to you and they’re like little sponges that want to soak up stuff.”
Melody Spires-Howe – Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School
For the past eight years, Melody Spires-Howe has enjoyed passing her love of history on to her students in Richmond County.
Spires-Howe, who currently teaches advanced placement social studies at Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School, earned a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in anthropology and a master’s degree in teaching with a concentration in secondary education from Augusta University.
“I was originally inspired to be a teacher while taking my high school history courses,” she said. “I had amazing teachers who made studying history immersive and dynamic. I was further inspired by my learning experiences at Augusta University under the social studies and education departments.”
Augusta University was a wonderful environment filled with great professors and a diverse student population, Spires-Howe said.
“It had the look and feel of a big university combined with the welcoming and personal feel of a small university,” Spires-Howe said. “I loved the fact that class sizes were small and that I really got to know my professors. It provided me with an excellent world-class education in my own hometown.”
While at Augusta University, Spires-Howe said she had a strong connection to the Department of History, Anthropology, and Philosophy.
“In this department, my love and passion for the social sciences expanded as I learned the research, analysis and synthesis skills needed to become a historian,” she said. “This department afforded many opportunities that made my time at Augusta University rewarding. For example, I worked as the department student assistant via the work study program and learned valuable workplace skills. In addition to that experience, I also had the opportunity to complete an internship at the Fort Gordon Archives and attended a study abroad program in Sweden.”
Some of her favorite courses at Augusta University were research methods with Dr. Wendy Turner, Islamic worlds with Dr. Michael Bishku, anthropology with Dr. Jennifer Trunzo and Dr. Christopher Murphy, women’s history with Dr. Ruth McClelland-Nugent, ethics with Dr. Steven Weiss and all of the history classes taught by Dr. Herbert van Tuyll.
“The professors in the history department were phenomenal,” she said. “They fostered an inquiry-based education and promoted learning environments that supported their students.”
Spires-Howe also said the College of Education and Human Development at Augusta University helped thoroughly prepare her for a career in the classroom.
“The combination of informative teaching courses and in-field experiences set me on the path to implementing effective teaching practices in my own classroom,” she said. “The most influential class from my education pathway was educational technology with William Gray. This class prepared me to navigate the ever-changing incorporation of technology in the field of education.”
Today, Spires-Howe brings those skills to her classroom at Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School.
“Davidson Fine Arts is an amazing place to teach,” she said. “It has wonderful students, a hardworking staff and dedicated educators. The students are excited to learn and are willing to put in the hard work needed to succeed in their academics as well as in their fine arts.”
Columbia County Teacher of the Year: AU alumni finalists
Marisol Garcia-Mitchell – Greenbrier High
When Marisol Garcia-Mitchell looks at her classrooms’ rosters each year, she doesn’t see a list of names on a page. Instead, she sees a story behind each student’s name.
“I see a face and I see a story,” said Garcia-Mitchell, who teaches Spanish at Greenbrier High School in Columbia County. “I see a story behind each student that could be similar to what I went through as a child. Or it could be another story that needs to be told.”
As a native of Panama, Garcia-Mitchell said one of her elementary teachers, Edilberto Gutiérrez, saw she was struggling as a young child and reached out to help.
“My third-grade teacher, Mr. Gutiérrez, inspired me because of his compassion for students,” she said. “He took the time to understand that there was something going on at my house that was affecting me in the classroom. He truly cared and I don’t know if he knows how much he impacted me.”
To this day, Garcia-Mitchell says she works hard to build the same kind of relationships with her students and make sure they feel safe and secure in her classroom.
“I want them to know that I’m there for them and I want them to feel comfortable enough to come to me and let me know, ‘I need help,’ if they are struggling,” she said. “I want them to trust me because I’m there to help build their self-esteem and confidence.”
Garcia-Mitchell moved to the United States after marrying her husband who was stationed in Panama during his military career. But when she moved to Augusta, she didn’t realize she wanted to be a teacher. Instead, Garcia-Mitchell was an executive team leader at Target and enrolled in then-Augusta State University to seek a bachelor’s degree.
But, while at Augusta University, several friends and colleagues saw her enthusiasm for learning and suggested she should consider a career in teaching.
Dr. Jana Sandarg, now professor emeritus of Spanish at Augusta University, was Garcia-Mitchell’s advisor and she had a tremendous impact on her college career, Garcia-Mitchell said.
“During my first year at Augusta University, I was placed in a learning support class because English was my second language and that experience was unbelievable,” Garcia-Mitchell said. “Dr. Sandarg taught me so much. She taught me how to academically write in English and she was always available — not just during her office hours, but any time I needed any additional help.”
“I remember, after I finished my first year at Augusta University, I took a communication class my second year and I got the highest grade in the class for my presentation, just because of what she taught me,” she added. “I was the only international student in that class, but I was completely prepared thanks to Dr. Sandarg.”
By 2011, Garcia-Mitchel earned her bachelor’s degree in foreign language education at Augusta University. As a student, she was also awarded the Student Teacher of the Year Award by the Georgia Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese for 2011-12.
“I would highly recommend Augusta University to anyone who is looking for a quality education at a school that can offer you a one-on-one experience with your professors,” she said. “The professors at AU really know your name and who you are.”
After graduating from Augusta University, Garcia-Mitchell taught Spanish at Butler High School in Richmond County for five years, where she was also named the school’s Teacher of the Year for the 2018-2019 school year.
“Now at Greenbrier, I got the Teacher of the Year for a second time, so I guess I’m doing something right,” Garcia-Mitchell said, laughing. “It feels nice to be recognized.”
In 2019, Garcia-Mitchell transferred to Greenbrier High and began sponsoring the Multicultural Club which educates students about other cultures. In 2020, Garcia-Mitchell organized and presented her first Black History Program and, in May 2022, she was selected as “The Most Influential Teacher” by a former Butler High School student.
“I love teaching because I have the opportunity to impact children,” she said. “I have an opportunity to not only teach them Spanish, but I also teach them to dream. I teach them that there is an entire world out there and that there is more that the world has to offer than just their comfort zone. They need to expand their minds and see the world and learn about that world.”
Ameesha Butler – Westmont Elementary and Martinez Elementary
For the past six years, Ameesha Butler was a third-grade teacher at Westmont Elementary in Columbia County. Westmont, which opened its doors in 1970, is currently being rebuilt into a new state-of-the-art facility.
Therefore, Butler began this school year at Martinez Elementary where she has embraced her new coworkers and student body.
“When I taught at Westmont, my favorite thing was the family that we’d built,” Butler said. “With Westmont being such a small, neighborhood school, everyone knows everyone. Many of the students have parents and grandparents who attended Westmont decades ago. The closeness of it all really makes Westmont such a special place, unlike any other.
“Now that I’m at Martinez, the people still make it extremely special. I love my teammates. They’re phenomenal, dynamic educators and they champion me so loudly.”
Butler is also a proud “triple Jag,” having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, a master’s degree in education and an Educational Specialist in Advanced Educational Studies degree, all from Augusta University.
“For as long as I can remember, school is always something that’s come easy to me. I grew up with several teachers in my family,” Butler said. “My mother was a teacher. I also had phenomenal teachers from Pre-K through college. I can actually call them all by name.”
Initially, Butler considered becoming a biochemical engineer, but she soon realized that career wouldn’t fulfill her.
“I knew I wanted to do something that would make a significant impact on the world,” she said. “I knew I needed to run toward what I felt was calling me: teaching. Since deciding to ‘answer my calling,’ it’s been the most amazing journey. I guess you could call it kismet. I’m getting to do what I love and make a significant impact, just like I set out to do.”
Butler says she enjoys every aspect of teaching, from data collecting and goal setting to relationship building and creating engaging learning experiences for her students.
“Every day is a brand-new day to make a difference for each of my 46 students,” Butler said, adding that she’s honored to be one of the finalists for Teacher of the Year in Columbia County. “Honestly, this has been one of the most humbling, most amazing seasons of my career as a teacher.”
“I work with such incredible teachers who are absolutely role models for me, so this whole experience means so much to me,” she added. “It’s a blessing to know that your colleagues see the hard work and love you pour into your work and they recognize you for it. I’m just grateful.”
Butler believes the three degrees she received at Augusta University prepared her well for the classroom.
“There are hours of in-person, in-field experiences from the very first moment that you express interest in becoming a teacher and I feel like that plays a role in the high-quality of teachers that AU is able to produce,” Butler said. “In fact, I was so well-prepared that I was actually hired for my first full-time teaching position on graduation day. I left the undergraduate classroom and moved into my very own classroom within a matter of days. Because AU prepared me so well, I aspire to be like the professors I had and one day teach future teachers.”
Kevin Faigle, media relations specialist for Augusta University Communications and Marketing, contributed to this article.