Teacher of the Year says she’s found her niche in education

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By Angye Morrison

LaTonya Rollinson took the scenic route to becoming an educator, but she is sure she has found her niche.

Recently named the Gadsden County Teacher of the Year 2009-10, Rollinson has worked in the Gadsden County Clerk’s Office, for the city of Quincy and in the juvenile court, a job for which she said she had a lot of passion.

But after being given the opportunity to work at Crossroad Academy, Rollinson, who has taught at Havana Elementary School for six years, knew she’d found her true calling.

“I knew that (working with) kids was my niche,” she said.

When she began at Crossroad, Rollinson said she’d earned her associate’s degree, and decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, which she earned at Florida State University. After earning that degree, she taught kindergarten for four years at Crossroad, as well as fourth and fifth grade and middle school math.

A Gadsden County native, Rollinson said she has had opportunities to go to neighboring Leon County to teach, but she is determined to stay in her community and give back.

Now a third grade teacher, Rollinson smiles when asked what a typical day in her classroom is like. Each day is different, but third grade is where there is a heavy emphasis on reading, the teacher said. There is a 90-minute reading block, and a 60- to 90-minute block of math. There’s also a 40-minute special area time, during which students can go to art, music, physical education, computer or the library.

They can also take advantage of one-on-one time with their teacher if they are struggling in any area of instruction. Rollinson also uses this time to allow those students to work in small groups or take part in peer tutorials, which benefits both the tutor and the one being tutored.

But instruction is not the only role Rollinson has in the classroom – she wears a multitude of other hats as well.

“I have to deal with discipline as well. We have to be psychologists, mothers, doctors, nurses; whatever is required,” she said. “I try to treat these kids the way I would expect someone to treat my two kids when I’m away from them. I try to do the best I can and I try to encourage them to do the best they can.”

And she must be doing something right. Last year’s class, under her instruction, all earned a 2 or better on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, a fact Rollinson is particularly proud of. She is quick to add that this year’s class is also doing very well, and they are in the midst of FCAT preparation.

Rollinson said she enjoys teaching the third grade, and she even likes the challenge of preparing her students for the FCAT.

“It gives a clear direction of what you should do,” she said. “When they come in, you know you have a time line that you have to follow to get the kids ready for the FCAT.”

Although she loves math personally, Rollinson said she has truly developed a love for teaching reading. In fact, she hopes to one day teach kindergarten or first grade so that she will be able to better prepare students so that they will be reading on grade level or better by the time they reach the third grade.

Rollinson feels the greatest challenge she faces is parental involvement. She has met most of the parents of her 17 students this year, but says it was a struggle.

“I’m a firm believer that when parents are active, it makes a difference. With practice at home and in the summer, it makes a difference when they get to school,” she said. “I’ve met most of the parents in my classroom, and it’s difficult to get their participation. It makes a difference in (the students’) behavior and performance.”

When asked what she considers to be her greatest strength as a teacher, Rollinson said the energy she brings to the classroom is a vital part of it.

“I want the kids to learn. I try to let that come through. I try to come in (to the classroom) positive, and show them the love I have for them and for learning as a whole. For the most part, that shows. I have a passion for teaching and for learning and showing it makes a difference,” she said.

Rollinson is this year’s grade chair for the third grade, and she said all of the third grade teachers at HES work together as a team very well. In her own classroom, she tries to keep things fresh and innovative for her students.

“I use a lot of manipulatives and hands-on activities,” she said.

The best part of teaching, Rollinson said, is watching her students get it – those light bulb moments when you can actually see them learn.

“I have a story to tell my husband when I go home every day,” she laughed. “I love seeing them get it. I love to see them grasp the skills and understand the concepts.”

Rollinson said there were many along the way who influenced her on her career path. Her kindergarten teacher, now HES assistant principal of instruction, Ethelyn Cunningham; Willie Ruth Williams, a high school teacher; and her mother, Annie Doris Jackson Smith, who wasn’t a teacher by profession but was nonetheless a gifted instructer – each of them influenced her in a positive way. She also credits Elizabeth Turner, Millie Forehand and Dorothy Roberts as mentors as well.

Every teacher has a student that stands out in their memory, and Rollinson is no exception. One of her students last year, who struggled academically, really touched her heart. He didn’t speak much, and had lots of challenges, but with nurturing from Rollinson, he pushed forward. Now in the fourth grade, he often sees her at school and offers a hug.

Rollinson even sought out his teacher at the beginning of the school year, and said, “I hear you have my baby. Take care of him. He’s not as strong academically as we would like, but he’s growing.”

Rollinson is a strict teacher, but she loves her students, and they love her in return. When she was named Teacher of the Year, they sang and cheered, celebrating their teacher’s success.

Together with her high school sweetheart and husband of 19 years, Benjie, Rollinson has two daughters: Briana, a senior and cheerleader, and Bernica, a swimmer and freshman. Both girls attend East Gadsden High School.

Rollinson said family comes first, and she spends all of her free time with them. Included in that are her mother, father Melvin Peters, and a cousin, Darrell Marshall, who Rollinson said has been like a brother and a major influence in her life.

Neither of her daughters has shown an interest in becoming a teacher at this point, but Rollinson said she has taught them the value of education and of educators.

“This is a very rewarding career,” she said. “We don’t get paid a lot and we put a lot back into our classrooms. But I hope that (my students) will learn from me to love one another as you want to be loved. If you do that, it sets you onto the right path in life.”