Sumrall fifth-grade instructor tops in Lamar County


Daphne Nelson said she is glad she didn’t listen to a family member when it came to teaching.

Nelson, a fifth-grade English Language Arts teacher at Sumrall Elementary School, has been a teacher for 12 years and five of those were at SES. This year, she was recognized for her dedication, being named the 2017-18 Lamar County School District Teacher of the Year.

Nelson said a relative told her not to teach.

“I am the first teacher in my family,” she said. “My mother-in-law actually taught one whole year and this is before I got married. She taught way before I knew my husband and she tried her best to talk me out of it. She said, ‘You don’t want to do it. You don’t want to do it.’ But I did, and I’m glad I did.”

An Oak Grove High School graduate, Nelson said returning to Lamar County was important for her.

“I have a strong investment in the community and the people around me, even though I wasn’t in Sumrall in school,” she said. “The school system in Lamar County is incredible. I’m a huge believer in public education, especially when you have such strong parental support like we have. I think that can absolutely make or break a school.

“Just growing up with teachers that care and parents that care is something that I knew I wanted to be involved in. it was a natural fit, so after I graduated and went to college, I taught in Perry County for a little while and then came back home.”

Nelson said she hasn’t always taught fifth-graders.

“I taught fifth-graders my first year in Perry County and then I moved up to junior high,” she said. “I loved it, absolutely loved it. When I got the job here, it was in fifth grade, so I’ve been in fifth grade ever since.”

Teaching fifth-graders has its own set of style, Nelson said.

“(The fifth-graders) almost have like a ‘senior-itis’ at times because they are the oldest kids on campus,” she said. “At the same time, they are still really sweet and still really loving. They always have good questions for me and we have a group of kids here who are into robotics. Every kid is a natural-born scientist, I think. We are capitalizing on that with our robotics team and those teachers are doing great jobs with them. Those kids are building robots out of piles of Legos and it absolutely blows my mind.”

Nelson said the emphasis on technology and advanced education has made an impression on her.

“A few years ago, I heard an administrator say, ‘We’re training kids for jobs that don’t even exist yet,’” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘That is such a profound statement.’ I don’t teach science anymore, but I thought that I’ve got to do everything I can to help these kids be ready because I don’t know what types of jobs they are going to have one day. They may turn out to be teachers like me or doctors or have some job that hasn’t even been invented.

“We’ve got a good emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), I think, across the board in the state and the nation. It’s STEAM really now because they have gone back to include the arts, which I think is really important.”

English Language Arts today isn’t the same English classes of 10 and 15 years ago, Nelson said.

“(Teaching English) is a whole lot different than it used to be, even in my 12 years in the classroom it has changed tremendously,” she said. “It used to be that you would pick a book or pick a story, you would read the story, the kids would have some vocabulary and then you would ask them questions about the story. The end. Now it’s more about peeling the layers of the text and reading the text at a deeper level, but also being able to write about it is big. It’s nothing like it used to be; everything is done in response to what they have read. We’re building better writers at the same time that we are building better readers.”

Nelson said being able to communicate by writing or typing on a Chromebook is important.

“Writing is one of my passions; I love to teach it,” she said. “It’s hard to teach, but it is so important. If a student can write about something, then they know it.”

While the central materials may not have changed, Nelson said how the materials are studied is more intense.

“We try to use things that are of high interest to the students, but also classic books that are award-winning,” she said. “Right now, my students are reading ‘Island of the Blue Dolphin,’ which people my age may have read in school because it’s an award-winning book with a great theme woven throughout with life lessons.

“Also, we use current events; we have a subscription here to Scholastic News, so the kids are always reading about current events and staying on top of what’s going on in the world. It’s presented in a kid-friendly manner so that it’s not overwhelming to them as fifth-graders, but at the same time they are getting good information about what’s happening in our world. The kids love it.”

All of the fifth-grade classes at Sumrall Elementary School use tables instead of individual desks because of the social aspect of those students who work in groups. However, the change can cause difficult situations, Nelson said.

“We’re not absolutely free of problems, but I feel like we have a lot of faculty who know how to handle problems the right way and how to make lemonade out of lemons,” she said. “You just face them head-on and make a difference where you can.”

Nelson said she was excited to be named Teacher of the Year, crediting a lot of her teaching success on her faith.

“I have to give credit where credit is due, first of all to God, Jesus,” she said. “Without Jesus, I am nothing and honestly, without Jesus I could not do anything that I do. I pray all the time for my kids, for my colleagues and for myself just to touch these kids and lead them in a way to help them learn and grow as people.”

Nelson also complimented the teachers that she works alongside.

“I also give credit to my team; these teachers that I work with are amazing,” she said. “Having them to collaborate with makes me a better teacher because I am constantly bouncing ideas off them. We have to have formal meetings, but even outside of that, we are constantly meeting, talking and discussing what we can do about this situation or we have one particular kid or group or even an idea to use in the classroom. Really having a good team makes all the difference in the world.”

Getting the support of the school and district leaders is also important, Nelson said.

“My administration here is very supportive and also in the central office,” she said. “I just can’t say enough good about them. They stand behind you.”