Zola Akins doesn’t remember not wanting to be a teacher. As a child she forced herself to play “A-Team” with her younger brother so he would sit still long enough for her to “practice” being a teacher with him as her only pupil.
“Even then I did what a teacher had to do to get the student’s attention,” she said as she reflected on the honor of “Teacher of the Year” for the Gadsden County School District on Jan. 16.
A teacher for 13 years, Akins said she was completely surprised when the Superintendent of Schools and an entourage walked into her classroom bearing flowers, balloons and gifts and made the announcement.
Akins said the award means a lot to her because she is a product of the Gadsden County School District and wants all students to live up to their potential and then push themselves even harder. While her mother was in the military and away a lot, she was reared in the St. Hebron Community of Gadsden County by her grandmother, Lillian Jackson.
Akins’ first professional love is teaching, but she thinks it is equally vital for teachers to be role models. There are many ways to teach, she says, and teaching by example is very important to her when relating to students. That’s why she keeps her college diploma from Florida A&M University on her desk at all times.
“One of my teachers kept her diploma on her desk, and I thought it was such a great idea. Children will inquire about it — ‘How did you get it?’ — and that leads to positive conversation and a teaching moment about the importance of making good grades and the importance of higher education. Teaching is not always about what you tell them, but what you show them,” she said.
What Akins is showing them next is about moving forward. She has already earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from FSU and FAMU, respectively, but there is more on the horizon.
“This fall I’ll be entering the Ph.D. program for Educational Leadership at FAMU. Once I get my doctorate, I want to come back to the district and work toward becoming an assistant principal or principal.
She and her husband, Derrick, have three children ages 17, 15 and 12. The family has been supportive of her educational pursuits.
“I could not have done any of this without the support and encouragement of my husband and family. This job doesn’t stop when the bell rings; teaching is a 24-hour profession. I’m out here at night on weekends,” she said.
For Akins, the real rewards are in the eyes of her 12-year-old when she tells her she also wants to be a teacher or when she sees a child she taught in kindergarten who is still doing well academically. Her first class of kindergarteners will be graduating high school in 2014. Some of them still visit or catch her up on their accomplishments when they see her.
“Last summer one of the young girls that I mentored was my daughter’s mentor during the TCC summer program. That’s coming full circle,” she said.
She has been named Teacher of the Year, but this year most of her time was spent teaching the teachers to teach reading. Akins misses her students, and she misses the classroom atmosphere.
“This job (as reading coach) is very important, and I get to work with a few students for 20 to 30 minutes a day but it’s nothing like being with them all and having the constant interaction,” she said. “But learning is all about growing and doing different things.”