Money & Career
Education Superheroes
8/1/2020 1:00:00 PM
Education Superheroes

School will soon be back in session, and whether a student will learn virtually from home or participate in a classroom while wearing a mask, the one constant will be the dedication of the student’s teacher. This year, due to the COVID-19 crisis, educators have likely seen more changes in a short period of time to the way we "do” school than ever before. But as you will discover in the following pages, local education superheroes are up to the task of providing a quality education to their students, despite the coronavirus pandemic. In this annual feature, we spotlight eight local educators who represent a wide variety of roles in an array of different school settings. They also represent fellow teachers all across Southwest Louisiana who are committed and determined to overcome the current challenges of educating our area youth.


Beth Benoit

Sulphur High School, counselor. 

18 years in education.


Background: 

Beth Benoit is a Sulphur native who graduated from McNeese State University with a teaching degree and a Master’s in School Counseling. She taught one year at Broadmoor Middle School in Baton Rouge, then two years at S.  J. Welsh Middle. Prior to her current position as counselor for the Sulphur High Class of 2022, she worked at W.W. Lewis Middle; seven years teaching and three years as a counselor. "I still consider myself part of the Lewis ‘family,’ as I made life-long friendships there and learned from many great educators.”


Why education?

 "Many of my family members are in education. Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher. One of my favorite Christmas presents as a child was a chalkboard that my sisters and I used to play ‘school.’ When I entered college, I first started in Accounting because of my love of math, but I quickly changed during my first semester to education and never doubted my decision.”


Challenges: 

"The biggest challenge many counselors face is helping students to overcome difficult home environment situations with lack of parental support.” 


Rewards: 

"It has been rewarding for me to see the growth in many of these students, having been with some of them since middle school. I have learned more by watching students persevere through unfair life situations than they have learned from me. Watching high school students set goals, work hard, and achieve them is gratifying.”


Personal goal as an educator: 

"My goal as an educator is to continue helping high school students earn their diploma and advocating for them in trying times. My husband, Aaron, and I have five children of our own – Kate (15), Cole (13), Anna (9), Jude (3), and Luke (1). I think of them in different circumstances I am faced with. My role as mother has complemented my role as school counselor.”


Recognitions:

2013 W.W. Lewis Middle School Teacher of the Year 

2013 CPSB Middle School Teacher of the Year

2020 Sulphur High School Counselor of the year 

2020 CPSB Overall Counselor of the Year


COVID-19 . . . How do you feel it will affect the way students experience education this year? 

"The school experience will definitely be different than the normal school year. The situation and expectations change daily, but I know my educator friends always rise to the challenge. Working at Sulphur High School with the 'Dream Team' in the office, I am confident we will have a different yet successful school year. I have always been blessed to work for faith-filled administrators who have based their decisions on the students first. I know our district leaders have been working hard to make decisions to give parents options that fit their family.”



Shaalom St. Mary

Oak Park Elementary School, Principal.

21 years in education.


Background: 

Shaalom St.  Mary is a Lake Charles native who attended the University of Louisiana-Lafayette for two years before transferring to McNeese State University where she graduated with her B.S. in Child and Family Studies with an Early Childhood Concentration, Masters in Early Childhood Education, and Masters + 30 in Administration and Supervision.


Why education?

"I come from a long line of educators. My great grandmother and grandmother were both educators. Listening to my great grandmother, Mrs. Mary E. Richardson, describe her love of teaching and her students stood out to me, and it made me decide that I wanted a job I would love doing for many years no matter the circumstances. This is definitely my attitude towards my profession. Even with all the trials and tribulations, every morning I wake up excited to go to work, and I always feel as though it is exactly where I am supposed to be.”


Challenges:

 "The biggest challenge in education is dealing with things that are out of our control. As educators we want to do everything in our power to make life better for our students both academically and socially/emotionally. Sometimes our students have issues that are out of the control of the students and the teachers and we can’t always make those situations better for our students. As an educator, the feeling is heartbreaking.”


Rewards: 

"There are so many rewards in my role as a principal. First, it is the joy of seeing the kids excited about school! When they can’t wait to tell me what they learned and did in class makes my heart leap with joy. As a principal, another reward is watching teachers grow in their craft. Teaching is an art and it takes time to properly develop and when you see teachers really grow and master teaching, it is one of the most rewarding experiences ever. I am fortunate that I have the opportunity to see that growth happen daily at Oak Park Elementary.”


Personal goal as an educator: 

"My goal as an educator is to be the best person for my students, teachers, and parents. This means that I must always be willing to go further, do more, learn new methods, new trends, and new techniques to be a better educator and to help my teachers become better as well.”


Recognitions:

2015 North Lake Charles Kiwanis Educator of the Year

2019 Harvard University School Turnaround Participant

May 2020, CPSB Special Education Administrator Trailblazer of the Week


COVID-19 . . . How do you feel it will affect the way students experience education this year? 

"With the COVID-19 pandemic our approach to safety will be in the forefront of every decision we make. Classrooms will look different with social distancing and other safety requirements such as mask-wearing. We will see an even greater emphasis on the use of technology by students. However, even though the classroom and school will look different it is important to note that the most important thing, the education of our students, will still look the same. All students will receive a high-quality education delivered by caring and devoted teachers.”





Tish Martinez

LeBlanc Middle School, Librarian. 29 years in education.


Background: 

Tish Martinez was born and raised in Sulphur and never left home. She attended McNeese State University and earned her BA in Education. She later returned to college and earned her Library Science Certification from Northwestern State University. She taught in the classroom for 13 years at Maplewood Middle School and has worked in the library at LeBlanc Middle School for 16 years. 

Why education? 

"There are many benefits in the field of education, but for me, as a young lady just starting her journey, it was simple and personal – I wanted to make a difference.”


Challenges: 

"Every year brings its own challenges in education, but probably one of the biggest challenges that a teacher must face each year is figuring out the many learning styles of the students in her classroom so that she meets each student’s needs.  It’s quite a challenge when you have a class of 25 (or more) and you are trying to meet these individual needs and teach the content that must be taught.”


Rewards: 

"I think the rewards of being an educator are the obvious "aha” moments and the simple idea that I am doing something positive to impact students and their futures.”


Personal goal as an educator: 

"When I think about my goals and where I go from here, I see myself with an added role of being a mentor to others in the field of education.”


Recognitions:

2020 CPSB Middle School Librarian of the Year


COVID-19 . . . How do you feel it will affect the way students experience education this year? 

"COVID-19 is already changing the face of education this school year, starting with parents needing to decide if learning will take place face-to-face or virtually for their child. It will be a year full of change and adaptation, but as educators, we will continue to do our part to educate our students, however that might look; after all, that is why we went into this career.”



Carolyn Nelson

Life Christian Academy, curriculum coordinator and mentor. Over 42 years in education.


Background: 

Carolyn Nelson was born in Southwest Louisiana, and though her father was in the Army and they moved around the country a lot, this region always felt like home. "After graduating from McNeese in 1969, I married my sweetheart, Joe Nelson, who was also in the army at that time and we traveled for many years and lived in many places. Eventually, we grew tired of moving and came back ‘home’ where we’ve lived for 45 years.” 


Why education?

 "I’ve never wanted to be anything other than a teacher! I love it and I don’t think I can ever stop. It makes me so happy when children ‘get it’ and I love teaching the ‘littles’. I taught several grades during my 30-year tenure in public schools but ended in a Kindergarten classroom my last 18 years loving on babies and teaching them that there is nothing they can’t accomplish if they try hard enough. There is nothing more rewarding than knowing that you were the one who first showed them they could read. The world just opens up to them after that! I retired from public school teaching in 2007 and stayed busy for about a year. My daughter Sarah asked me one day if I would homeschool my granddaughter. Two other girls wanted to join as well. I agreed, but only if she would find a place to set up a classroom. We would hold regular school hours and they would wear uniforms, so it would feel like an actual school. I named it Life Christian Academy (LCA), and in the fall of 2008, we met in a classroom of a church in Sulphur. The next year others, mostly siblings and cousins, were starting preschool and we needed more than one classroom, so Light of Life Church offered us their educational building. 


What a blessing they were! The following year, my daughter Stefanee Tolbert graduated from LSU and joined me. She asked what I thought about growing the school and allowing others join in on the fun! I told her as long as I didn’t have to be the principal. I just wanted to teach! Under her direction and continually leaning on our Lord Jesus Christ for guidance, LCA has grown to 365 scholars registered for this upcoming school year!”


Personal goal as an educator: 

"My ultimate goal and what I find most rewarding is inspiring a new group of passionate teachers who feel like teaching is their calling in life; teachers who genuinely make a difference in the lives of children. Those are the teachers who ignite a passion for learning in their students, who help to shape world-changers. This is how I hope to pass my legacy to others for generations.” 


COVID-19 . . . How do you feel it will affect the way students experience education this year? 

"The COVID-19 pandemic will certainly affect classrooms across the world. At LCA, we are doing everything we can to be as innovative as possible while keeping our children safe. Teachers are known for thinking outside the box and can overcome any obstacle. We daily face challenges and find ways to reach each child through it all. I have faith in educators as a whole and believe this will just be another challenge we will face head-on. There will be obstacles, but it’s nothing that teachers can’t and won’t overcome.” 



Jennifer Underwood

Iowa High School, Chemistry and Physics Teacher/ Assistant Cross Country and Track Coach. Five years in education.


Background: 

Jennifer Underwood is a life-long resident of SWLA. She graduated from Iowa High School where she now teaches. She earned a Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T) and Bachelor of Science (Biology and Chemistry) from McNeese State University. She previously taught at Sulphur High School for two years. 


Why education? 

"I have always been told that I should be a teacher. While I resisted for a long time, when my own children started school, I saw the positive impact that their teachers were having with kids at their school (LSE) and in our community and I felt compelled to be a part of this kind of work.” 


Challenges: 

"Teaching content in a way that is socially and culturally relevant to young adults with access to all of the information they need with a Google search is an ever-changing challenge. Exploring new ways to fit science content into real-time social, economic, and political lenses is critical to keeping my students engaged in learning. Science can no longer be taught as static information but rather in a way that students seek to find answers to their own questions. The need to ignite student curiosity and passion is really an art that I’m continuously working to master.”


Rewards:

"Simply the experience of working with young adults. They seem to have a natural tendency to question and advocate. They generally aren’t interested in being fact collectors because they have unprecedented access to all of the information they need. Instead they ask big questions . . . facilitating the process of working through those questions is the most rewarding part of my work.”  


Personal goal as an educator: 

"I’m really focused on continuing to learn, grow, and develop partnerships. As an educator, there’s this responsibility to constantly be the sharpest you can to effectively serve students and families. Professional growth and development is a huge part of my identity as an educator.” 


Recognitions:

2021 Louisiana Teacher of the Year Semi-Finalist

2020 Calcasieu Parish High School Teacher of the Year

2020-2021 Society for Science and the Public Advocate (making science research accessible to underserved student populations)

2019 Samsung Solve for Tomorrow State Winner- (student-led project to curve the impact of housing insecurity in Louisiana)

2019-2020 Amazon Future Engineer Educator 

Louisiana Dept. of Education Mentor Teacher Certification 


COVID-19 . . . How do you feel it will affect the way students experience education this year? 

"The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an immediate need to revolutionize our classrooms by merging what we already do with technology. We will see innovative solutions emerge that bridge current gaps between distance learning and other critical parts of a classroom – building social relationships that foster learning, identifying needs of all students, facilitating discussions among students, giving personal feedback, etc. Student devices will be more prominent in all schools. I also think parents will have a more active role in instruction as they are true partners with teachers now more than ever. It will be an exciting year for sure!” 



Suzy Solari

Immaculate Conception Cathedral School, Teacher. 13+ years in education.


Background: 

Suzy Solari has lived in Lake Charles her whole life. She attended ICCS and St. Louis Catholic High, and graduated from McNeese State University with a nursing degree. Seven years later, she returned to McNeese and earned a Master of Arts in Teaching. Solari currently teaches third-grade Religion, Reading, and English Language Arts. "My nursing background has been helpful in my teaching vocation. Past knowledge and experiences never go to waste.”


Why education? "

My journey to become a teacher was truly prompted by the Holy Spirit. One Saturday, I was in the ICCS gym watching my nephew’s basketball game. Suddenly in the crowded gym, I felt as though I was alone. I received a clear and direct message in my heart, mind, and soul. ‘Why are you not right here? Right here.’ The following week I found out what I needed to do to become a teacher. Following the Holy Spirit’s guidance, everything fell perfectly into place. During my student teaching, I was approached by Mrs. Dinah Bradford about an opening in third-grade at ICCS. Within days of my December graduation, my journey began.”


Challenges:

 "There are challenges in every aspect of life. You are never just a teacher. You are also a catechist, manager, secretary, psychologist, medic, and so much more. Computer technologist and virtual presenter can now be added to the list. Integrating each part requires patience and the understanding that we are always learning. Change is inevitable. It helps us move forward.


Rewards: 

"Teaching is not merely a job. It is a vocation if it is the right one for you. Our ICCS Mission Statement, ‘Strengthening Spirits, Minds, and Bodies through the teachings of Jesus Christ’, helps to show this. Knowledge can be gained from books and other resources, but wisdom and love are based on human interactions. So much can be learned from life experiences. It brightens my day when I hear students say that they love my stories. It is a joy and a privilege to share God’s love with them.”


Personal goal as an educator: 

"I want to help my students become who God created them to be. In my classroom, there is a poster that inspires me. It is a quote by Carl W. Buechner that states, ‘They may forget what you said, but they will not forget how you made them feel.’  I hope my students feel loved.”


Recognitions: 2016-2017 ICCS Teacher of the Year.


COVID-19 . . . How do you feel it will affect the way students experience education this year? 

"Having experienced nine weeks of Distance Learning last school year helps us understand about where we have come from and how we will need to adjust. Over the years, the shift changed from teacher-directed learning to student-directed cooperative learning. Out of necessity, we now move back to individual work spaces and materials. Social distancing, masks, intensified hand hygiene, and static student groups will become our new normal for as long as needed. We will be working to support our students and families to help everyone receive what they need in the safest learning environment possible. If you look carefully, you can still see a smile behind a mask. I hope that the students recognize my smile. I am anxious to see theirs as well!”



Ashley Nash Lavine

St. Louis Catholic High School, Teacher. 13 Years in the Field of Education.


Background: 

Ashley Lavine grew up in Jennings, La., and attended Catholic Our Lady Immaculate Catholic School in Jennings and Notre Dame Catholic High School in Crowley. At McNeese State University, she earned a BS in Business Education with certifications in Computer Literacy, Marketing, Social Studies, and Business, while simultaneously achieving an AS degree in Computer Information Technology. She began her career at Hathaway High School and currently teaches Business courses at St. Louis. She is also the St. Louis chapter adviser of Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA), which she established after coming on board at the school. "I took my first business class in high school – Accounting and Financial Math. I also joined an investing club called Dollars & Sense. These experiences left a lasting impression.”


Why education? 

"I had so many education influencers in my life, from my parents to teachers, mentors, etc. I so admired the time and effort they put into molding me, and I yearned to do the same with young people. In college, I changed my major from Business to Business Education. After a few years of teaching, my husband and I began learning more about finances and budgeting. We took Dave Ramsey’s course, Financial Peace University. I was hooked! I searched for ways to teach these lessons to my students and discovered there was a high school curriculum on how to properly manage money. Through grants, I’ve been able to teach Financial Math and Personal Finance classes to high schoolers.”


Challenges:

"Being able to offer a variety of business elective courses to all students is a great a challenge. Our students are so burdened with required courses necessary to secure TOPS funding, AP credit, and state high school graduation requirements.”


Rewards: 

"I love teaching classes based on current trends/issues and bringing business education to my school community because it prepares students for real professional/academic/work/career/life skills. Recently, the FBLA held a virtual Leadership Conference. Thirteen St. Louis students participated along with 8000 other students from across the globe. For the first time in St. Louis history, two of our students placed top 10 in the nation!”


Personal goal as an educator: 

"To continue to grow the Business Program at St. Louis Catholic High School and to offer certifications for students in Microsoft Office. To encourage and model ways to open a small business in Entrepreneurship class. To continue to advocate that Personal Finance is a course required for ALL students! Having these credentials will benefit students after high school, college, and beyond.”


Recognitions:

Louisiana Association of Business Educators Association Member
Louisiana FBLA State Committee Board Member
National Business Educator Association Board Member
Certiport CERTIFIED Certification Endorsement Program

NextGen Personal Finance Certified Educator in Investing
Wise Certification in Personal Finance
Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert


COVID-19 . . . How do you feel it will affect the way students experience education this year?

 "From a business teacher’s point of view, students will be more equipped with learning technologies. This pandemic could positively change the way education is presented to our students. Now more than ever education can be a bridge where teacher, student, and parents are more involved. It’s an opportunity for education changemakers to pave the way for a better future for our students.”



Julee Spann

Brentwood Elementary School, Turnaround Teacher. 22 years in the field of education.


Background: 

Julee Spann was born in Houston, Texas where she attended elementary school. Her family moved to Jennings when she started middle school. She graduated from McNeese State University and currently serves as turnaround principal at Brentwood Elementary. She says that everything she does involves a team of people. "No matter where I’ve served in my career, the team surrounding me determines our success. My team supports and sustains me.”


Challenges: 

"The challenges of education are abundant, which can weigh us down. We can’t allow ourselves too much time in that space, but rather focus on what we can control and positively impact. I am fortunate to work with a team at Brentwood who supports one another to provide an enthusiastic and loving environment for our students.”


Rewards: 

"Being an educator is a vocation, not a career. What we do each day is about service to our students, families, peers, and community. We put the needs of others before our own.  Bringing comfort and providing an outstanding educational environment are the most rewarding parts of my role as principal.”


Personal goal as an educator: 

"My heart has always been to serve and support teachers in a way that allows them to become their absolute best. Teaching is a challenging profession. For teachers to sustain their enthusiasm and grow their talents in this ever-changing field, they need to have leaders who believe in them, are committed to their development, and who will serve beside them.”


Why education? 

"Becoming an educator was on my heart from a young age. Many people tried to talk me out of my decision, and I fought it for a long time, but ultimately my heart for children could not be denied.”


Recognitions:

2020 CPSB Elementary Principal of the Year

First Turnaround Principal of CPSB

National Institute of School Leadership Facilitator

Harvard Turnaround Leader Institute

2017 National Blue Ribbon School Principal (at Vincent Settlement Elementary)


COVID-19 . . . How do you feel it will affect the way students experience education this year? 

"We’ve had more families in our district than we anticipated choose to enroll in the Connected Classrooms. I believe many will change their mind and move their children to the face to face option during those first two weeks of school. While initially sad about the safeguards we need to implement into our environment, as true educators do, we accepted the challenge! Following all safety protocols, our district and school task force will be ready to offer a safe and loving environment. We’ve implemented more safeguards than required to make sure employees, parents, and students feel comfortable. I feel confident we can offer a high-quality learning experience. Our teachers are highly skilled with the curriculum and have been working all summer to develop new skills needed to instruct virtually.


Brentwood students and teachers give the best hugs and high fives. This will probably be the hardest adjustment for all of us. We have a team working on developing hand motions and verbal messages to make sure we continue that rich sense of love among our Brentwood family. The social and emotional needs of our students come first. To create strong minds, we need to first make sure their hearts are in good shape.”

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