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Four finalists named for 2023 Arkansas Teacher of the Year award

2023 honoree will be named this fall by Olivia Alexander | August 5, 2022 at 3:22 a.m.
Elouise Shorter, from Dollarway High School, celebrates as she is named one of four finalists during the Arkansas Teacher of the Year Regional Finalists ceremony Thursday in Little Rock. See more photos at arkansasonline.com/85teacher/ (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

State leaders, educators and community members gathered Thursday morning at the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock to recognize the 13 regional semifinalists and four state finalists for the 2023 Arkansas Teacher of the Year Award.

As part of the National Teacher of the Year program, the state award seeks to identify and recognize excellent teaching in public elementary and secondary education, according to the Arkansas Department of Education. From July 2023 to June 2024, the award recipient will be placed on paid administrative leave as she serves as an experienced ambassador for teachers, makes public appearances throughout the state and meets regularly with the State Board of Education as a non-voting member.

After a site visit to each of the finalists' schools, the selection committee will name the next Teacher of the Year this fall. Cabot School District special education teacher Jessica Saum, the 2022 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, announced the four finalists during the event.

Finalist Amber Leaton teaches social studies to 11th- and 12th-grade students at Bryant High School. During her 10 years in education, she has grown and developed the school's Advanced Placement United States History program through incorporating technology and innovative projects to engage students.

Leaton also sponsors the school's student senate and works with young leaders to improve school culture and serve the community. Once a shy student herself, she now serves as a leader in her school and district and challenges students to take control of their own education.

"I can honestly say that I'm a better student, leader and volunteer today because of what I learned in her class," a former student said about Leaton.

Finalist Stephanie Long teaches third grade at Walter Turnbow Elementary School in Springdale. During her 12 years as an educator, she's focused on teaching students from diverse backgrounds and working with parents and the community to support the whole child.

Long has received more than $16,500 in grants and donations for her students and their families, and the Department of Education has named her twice as a state finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She helped establish a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics Night at her school, which is now an annual event with more than 30 community organizers.

Her calling to teaching came honestly and without question, and a colleague described her as "dedicated, driven and diligent."

Finalist Capri Salaam teaches seventh- and eighth-grade students in social studies at North Little Rock Middle School. In her nine years of teaching, she's earned a reputation as a dedicated educator whose creativity shines in the classroom, and she can often be found dancing down the hallways.

After she served as a mentor at a summer program in her hometown, Salaam fell in love with education. She now trains and mentors novice teachers, leads professional development workshops for her school and district and welcomes her colleagues with her energy and positive attitude.

When she's not leading hands-on lessons in the classroom, Salaam discreetly passes out personal hygiene items to students attending extracurricular activities and drafts a weekly newsletter informing parents about community events.

Finalist Elouise Shorter teaches math to ninth- through 12th-grade students at Dollarway High School in the Pine Bluff. Having dedicated 18 years of her life to teaching, she guides her students through practical lessons that include public speaking, personal finance and preparation for job interviews.

"When this educator's grandmother told her that she would be a teacher, her response was, 'I will not be dealing with anyone else's children,'" Saum announced. "Well, her grandmother was right, and this educator does indeed with quite a few children."

Today, Shorter is a fierce and vocal advocate who commits herself to helping students who are struggling academically to meet their maximum potential for college and career readiness.

Saum, the 2022 Teacher of the Year, spoke Thursday before she, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Education Secretary Johnny Key honored the four finalists.

During her remarks, Saum encouraged the semifinalists to "breathe and be present" and admitted that she'd forgotten her phone at home before the event. But to this, Saum said she was glad, as she allowed herself to take in the experience of honoring the best educators in the state of Arkansas.

"You are here because your school, your district and your community have all been made better because of your dedication to the teaching profession and to the students that you serve," Saum told the semifinalists. "You are here because you deserve to be. You went above and beyond in a year that many classified as the most difficult year of teaching to date."

Saum also asked the teachers to prioritize a joyful learning environment in their schools. In her classroom, students begin each day with a dance party, and once a week Saum roller skates throughout the school to make "Fridays more fun."

Saum said teachers "get to" teach, they do not "have to" teach. She said that every day, teachers have the opportunity to positively impact the lives of their students, and she asked all to set their minds on positivity this school year.

"We get to do that every single day," Saum said. "So choose joy, not just because it's the right thing to do, but also because we know the positive impact it has on student learning, engagement and all that they do throughout their day. Our students deserve it."


  photo  Capri Salaam, from North Little Rock Middle School, celebrates as she is named one of four finalists during the Arkansas Teacher of the Year Regional Finalists ceremony at the Governor’s mansion in Little Rock on Thursday. See more photos at arkansasonline.com/85teacher/ (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
 
 



 Gallery: Teacher of the Year



Print Headline: 4 Teacher of Year finalists announced

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