POYEN Poyen High School teacher Amanda Jones is one of four semifinalists for the Arkansas 2018 Teacher of the Year award. Selected first as one of 14 regional finalists, Jones learned she was one of the “final four” during a ceremony Aug. 30 in the Old Supreme Courtroom at the state Capitol in Little Rock.
“It is extremely humbling to be included in a group of such wonderful teachers from around our state as the regional finalists represented, and to be selected as one of the four semifinalists from that group is a bit unbelievable for me,” said Jones, 41. “At the Capitol the day the announcement was made, just hearing about each of the other teachers and all the wonderful things they do with their students and for their schools was so heartwarming. I am a teacher and a momma, so it makes me proud as an Arkansan, a teacher and a mother to know exceptional teachers are across our state working with our students.”
Each of the 14 regional finalists received $1,000, which was made possible by an annual grant from the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville. The person selected as Teacher of the Year will receive an additional $14,000 and a year’s leave of absence from his or her school job in 2018-19 to travel the state and serve as an ex-officio member of the Arkansas Board of Education. The state winner will also compete for the National Teacher of the Year award.
Jones teaches science at her alma mater, Poyen High School. Her schedule this year includes chemistry, physics, biology, pre-Advanced Placement biology, AP biology and environmental science, as well as robotics in the fall in physics class and an elementary after-school weekly science class beginning in October.
“The Poyen School District faculty, staff and students are extremely proud to have one of our own, Amanda Jones, as one of the semifinalists for the Arkansas Teacher of the Year,” said Dennis Emerson, high school principal. “This is an extreme honor not only for Mrs. Jones, but also for our district.
“I have had the unique opportunity to have had Mrs. Jones as a student in class, worked with her as a fellow teacher and now am serving as her high school principal. It has been very exciting watching her grow year after year and seeing all of the positive things that she brings to her students, as well as her colleagues in the profession. Her professionalism, attention to the needs of her students and dedication to the teaching profession are second to none.”
Jones graduated from Henderson State University with a bachelor’s degree in biology and from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with master’s degree in secondary education. She is currently working on a principal’s certificate. Jones has been a teacher for 18 years, including two years at Magnet Cove.
Students entering Jones’ classroom are greeted with a Wall of Possibilities, which features pictures of former Poyen students who have gone on to careers and success after graduating from the small rural school.
“I decided a couple years ago that I would like to showcase former small-town graduates on the wall to inspire my students and show them exactly what real people from our very own school and community do every day, and the successful lives and careers they have,” Jones said. “It makes the dream seem possible if you can just see others like you, from a small town like you, who didn’t grow up with everything handed to them, reach their dreams.”
Jones said this Wall of Possibilities reflects her philosophy of teaching.
“I believe that teachers should commit to ‘be’ the difference in our students’ lives — whatever that difference is that they need. We cannot settle for simply making a difference, but we must reach beyond the acceptable and strive for excellence, working to ‘be’ the difference,” she said.
“No matter where you are from, who you are, or what you have, you can achieve your goals and dreams if you always work hard and you set your mind to never, ever give up,” Jones said. “I try to teach my students that small school and small town doesn’t mean small dreams — big dreams are realities for all of those who remain focused, work hard and never give up. My wall of possibilities is living proof of my philosophy of education by showcasing people from small towns and small schools who turned their big dreams into reality.
“I want to add more former grads to my Wall of Possibilities to share with my students. I’d love to fill the entire hallway with success stories for our students to see and read about every day.”
Poyen High School had a state Teacher of the Year winner a few years ago; Ouida Newton was the 2015 Arkansas Teacher of the Year.
“Mrs. Newton is truly amazing. She has what I call teacher magic,” Jones said.
“She can teach a lesson with what looks like an effortless approach that every student can understand. She was one of my high school math teachers and also my high school physics teacher,” Jones said.
“She served as my Senior Beta Club sponsor from ninth through 12th grade. She has always been a mentor to me, from high school when I was student in her classroom, and I have been fortunate enough to also have her as a colleague during my career,” Jones said.
“If I can become just half the teacher Mrs. Newton is, I will be an exceptional teacher. Our small school has amazing teachers and is working diligently to always offer new and innovative programs to better prepare our students for the future that awaits them upon graduation,” Jones said. “I may not be selected as the second Arkansas Teacher of the Year from our school district, but I have no doubt that our small district holds spectacular educators who will become our district’s second Arkansas Teacher of the Year.
“I am a product of small schools from elementary at Carthage to high school at Poyen. I truly believe in the small-school concept, where students are first, students are the focus, and education is built around the individual needs of those students in that community for that exact time period.”
Emerson said he also had the privilege of working with Ouida Newton as a fellow teacher and as her high school principal.
“Teachers such as Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Newton help to raise the bar for the students within our district,” Emerson said. “Their dedication and work ethic are contagious to the faculty and staff and help to ensure that we are truly meeting the needs of each of our students. These teachers come in early and leave late and are constantly looking for ways to improve their teaching methods and strategies to help the students whom they teach.
“Once again, we are very proud of their accomplishments and look forward to the announcement of this year’s Arkansas Teacher of the Year, but in our hearts and minds, we already know who the winner will be because we see her every day — Amanda Jones.”
In June, Jones completed an education tour to Havana, Cuba, organized by the Worldwide STEM Education Group, of which she is a charter member.
“The group is mainly comprised of teachers in the Virginia/Washington, D.C., area I met when I presented at a conference in D.C. two years ago as a presidential awardee. The group was invited by the Cuban ministry of education to host a STEM training for Cuban educators. We worked to find supporters for the group and the educational mission, but there were no large supporters,” Jones said.
“Instead, each of us decided to raise our own funds and cover our expenses, supplies, materials, cost of the event venue, as well as pay to sponsor a Cuban teacher to attend. In the end, the group dwindled to five U.S. teachers from the original 30, so the five of us split the cost and paid for 20 educators each to attend and receive class-lesson materials for all the lessons,” she said.
“My trip was supported by my amazing community, wonderful former and current students, family and friends through a GoFundMe account I set up. Together, those amazing folks raised over half ($2,800) of my total trip cost ($5,400). I covered the rest of the cost. I was amazed by this outpouring of love and support for this journey,” Jones said.
“I got my first passport and packed two suitcases full of supplies for my lessons and headed off on the most enlightening and encouraging professional development of my life,” she said. “The entire trip took place in Havana and included three days of classes, lectures, visits and lessons for us about Cuban culture, history and the education system.
“The rest of our days were spent teaching a week-long workshop for 100 Cuban educators from around the country who were selected to attend by the Cuban ministry of education. They would then take the lessons back to their towns/schools and train other teachers in an effort to build a stronger STEM-focused curriculum for their students.”
Jones said the whole experience was “eye-opening, to say the least.”
“It is easy in America to take the basic daily liberties we have for granted. It was amazing, however, to see a culture of people who are so completely devoted to education and value the role of the family in education. These teachers were extremely grateful every day to attend the classes we taught and even asked us to stay late and teach more. They were hungry to learn new lessons, use new materials and gain skills with new tools,” Jones said.
“Our teachers had never even seen a hot glue gun before. They were amazed, and we were all amazed by their love of learning,” she said. “This training taught me far more than I could’ve ever possibly shared with those extraordinary Cuban teachers during our week together.
“What a blessing to have been able to experience this journey in my career and an even greater one to know that my students, their parents, my community members all gave willingly to make this training possible for every one of those Cuban educators and, even more humbling, for me.”
Jones and her husband, Casey Jones, who was her high school sweetheart, have three daughters — Ella, 13, Avrie Anna, 10, and Aliza, 3.
“They keep life interesting,” Jones said, smiling. “I thank God for giving me the best job and most important job I could ever have by allowing me to be the momma of these amazing girls.”