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W.Va.'s top teacher never thought teaching would be her calling

September 19, 2006|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. - Berkeley Springs High School English teacher Sarah L. Morris, now West Virginia's Teacher of the Year, never thought teaching would be her professional calling.

"It was something I stumbled into," the 32-year-old West Virginia University graduate said Monday. "I went into it thinking I would do something for a little while."

Six years of working with a supportive administration at the high school has helped change her outlook on a "hard job" that at times isn't very rewarding, she said.

"I feel like I've had a lot of rewards that others don't get," Morris said. "When people believe in me, I can believe in myself. I think we have a model here that really works."

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After graduating from WVU in 1997 with a bachelor's degree in English, Morris said she struggled financially with low-paying jobs conducting phone surveys and decorating cakes at a bakery.

Out of "desperation," Morris went back to school for a graduate degree that would prove more lucrative for her, an admitted "word geek."

"I've always been a reader and a writer," she said.

After graduating in 2000, Morris discovered there were no jobs in her hometown of Morgantown, W.Va., and she responded to the demand for teachers in the Eastern Panhandle.

But getting a job here wasn't that easy. After four interviews, the only offer came from Berkeley Springs.

"I think it was fate," Morris said. "It just seemed like a great place to be - and it is."

This academic year, she's teaching five courses, including two in partnership with the Blue Ridge Community and Technical College.

And her students are not the only students in class.

"I learn from them just as much as they learn from me," Morris said.

As for the statewide recognition and being the first Eastern Panhandle teacher to be so honored, Morris said she is amazed at what has happened.

"I feel so many people in education work so hard - we all work so hard," Morris said. "I don't take on a job unless I'm going to do a good job."

Morris received the Mary Linn Fox First Year Teacher Award in 2002 and was a 2006 participant in the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program, which strives to increase understanding between the people of Japan and the United States.

She also is the author of "My Father Teaches Me to Fish," which was accepted for publication in Gray's Sporting Journal in 2005, and "Burying Opal," which was published by Nantahala Review in 2002.

She is preparing to represent West Virginia in the National Teacher of the Year competition, another application and interview process.

All this comes after thinking she "completely bombed" the interview as one of 11 finalists for the state award.

"The whole thing is perplexing," said Morris, who since has resolved in her mind that everything happens for a reason.

Her principal, George Ward Jr., recently shared his own perspective on Morris' talents.

"The quality I have admired most about Sarah over the last five years is her perseverance," Ward said. "When most teachers profess failure, Sarah looks for a new approach. She has the magic that we all talk about and the humility to downplay it."

Former Morgan County Schools Superintendent and now State Superintendent Steve Paine had the privilege of making the announcement.

"It is my distinct privilege to honor such a fine educator in our state's public school system," Paine said in a news release. "Sarah's dedication to her students by preparing them for college or the workplace has made her worthy of this award."

As West Virginia's 2007 Teacher of the Year, Morris will receive an educational technology package from the Smarter Kids Foundation valued at about $14,300.

Morris was selected by a committee appointed by the state superintendent of schools to evaluate 11 finalists who came from the county Teacher of the Year winners. The Teacher of the Year is the longest ongoing awards program honoring classroom teachers in the country, granting its first award in 1964.

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