Teachers urged to 'answer the call' at event

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By Jesef Williams

Many educators may not realize how significant of a role they play in their students' lives.

For some students, a teacher might be the only adult who gives them continuous positive attention.

Motivational speaker Dr. Tonea Stewart reminded local teachers that they are shaping the leaders of tomorrow. She encouraged teachers to always put students first and treat them with the utmost respect.

Stewart, an acclaimed actor and college professor, was the guest speaker at Tuesday's opening ceremony for teachers in the Lancaster County School District.

She spoke during two sessions – one in the morning for the middle and high school teachers and the other in the afternoon for elementary teachers. Both programs were held at Lancaster High School's auditorium.

The theme was Ready to Answer the Call.

"Don't think little of your task, because your task is a mammoth one," said Stewart, who used her vocal and theatrical skills to captivate an audience of several hundred educators.

Stewart, a Mississippi native, told several stories of her own school experiences as a child. She also spoke of problems that exist in the homes of some children today.

She told the audience to remember many youth leave their home in the mornings without getting a hug or something to eat. And when they get home, sometimes there's nobody around to ask them about their day.

"Our children are looking to us for guidance they will find nowhere else," she said. "They see you as a symbol of strength and direction."

Stewart is the director of theater arts at Alabama State University. Before that, she taught speech at Jackson State University.

She's probably best known for her role as Aunt Etta on the television series "In the Heat of the Night."

She's also had roles in other series, such as "Walker, Texas Ranger" and "Matlock," and has appeared in several movies, including "Mississippi Burning" and "A Time To Kill."

Susan Hammond, a guidance counselor at Kershaw Elementary School, was glad to have Stewart as the keynote speaker. She said all teachers needed to hear her talk.

"She directed our focus," Hammond said. "It's about teaching children and giving them the best you have to offer every day."

Celebrate Great Teaching

After Stewart spoke, the district announced its 2008 Celebrate Great Teaching Award winners. The accolade honors top educators in four areas: elementary, middle, high school and beginning teachers.

There's also an award for the overall top teacher in the district.

Deirdra Chandler, who teaches fifth grade at Erwin Elementary, was this year's overall award winner. She also won the award for elementary school teachers.

The other winners are:

– Denise Barnes, Lancaster High (high school teacher)

– Leslie Gainer, North Elementary (beginning teacher)

– Beth Reeves, Andrew Jackson Middle (middle school teacher)

"It will give me a fresh perspective of the responsibilities I have to my students," Chandler said of winning. "It's like a reminder."

Contact reporter Jesef Williams at jwilliams@thelancasternews.com or (803) 283-1152