The ever-evolving field of education involves more than traditional teaching, especially since the coronavirus changed things.
Georgia “Annie” Freeman, a semifinalist for the Louisiana Teacher of the Year Award, was ready to meet those new challenges when the state needed teachers to morph into online instructors, crisis counselors and mental health evaluators.
The “Dream Team” wasn’t assembled to battle the demands of COVID-19. Dream Teachers is a statewide, nonprofit organization that works with business, industry and organizations throughout Louisiana to elevate the teaching profession and present the award.
Dream Teachers recognizes and rewards excellence in the classroom to help attract and retain highly qualified teachers for Louisiana students. Freeman shows humility but knows any standards of greatness recognized will only help the teaching profession.
“I've been as authentic as I can and just put myself out there and tried to make sure that whatever I submitted truly represent me,” she said. “I'm not being competitive; I'm just being me.”
Freeman is a Zachary High School math teacher. That’s the short version. The path that got her to this point is a lengthy formula that would take up a few chalkboards. Freeman calls herself a “very well-blended person.” Her parents were both professors at Louisiana Tech. Her father was in chemical engineering and her mother was in music and performing arts.
“So, I love my math and science, but I also feel artistically inclined, but I wouldn't say ‘gifted’ because I'm a Pinterest failure sometimes, but I try to have fun doing it," she said.
Freeman’s family moved back to her mother’s native Alabama in hopes that she could graduate from high school in Fairhope, Alabama. During its time in Alabama, the family encountered a major crisis. Her father was diagnosed with cancer and fought spreading cancers through most of her middle and high school days. She applied to several colleges, including LSU, with plans to follow in her father’s footsteps in engineering, but she finally decided to stay close to home.
“My father died at the Thanksgiving break of my freshman year of college,” she said.
Freeman completed two years in chemical engineering, worked at a co-op in specialty chemicals but begun to struggle with the engineering and the destruction and environmental recklessness related to it.
“I didn't want to do it anymore,” she said. “Then I found myself in college being really sad that I had taken my last math class.”
She had a head start on college math because she took AP calculus in high school. Her next job was working as a math tutor at a foster home. While some tutors were fulfilling program requirements, Freeman said she was doing it just for fun.
“I thought if math brings so much fun, why don't I just kind of swap my major to math education and be a math teacher,” Freeman said. “I feel like in engineering, I was a circle peg trying to cram myself into the square hole, and it just didn't work. But as soon as I tried the math education route, it was like a perfect fit. I loved it. I love my classes.
“School is no longer work,” she explained. “I feel like it was my calling and I just figured it out.”
The "math light" came on and Freeman has never turned it off. She got her degree in math and a master's degree in math education. She has taught middle school and high school math and would like to teach teachers how to teach math, much like her parents did.
“Some teachers teach, and then they get their counseling or administration masters,” she said. “But for me, I'm very passionate about math and just math education. Now. I don't really think that's my platform. It's just that my language is math … I love math.”
Freeman’s love for math paired with an unorthodox approach to it in the classroom yield outcomes.
“Students will say ‘I hate math, but I love your class,’” she said. “I love math and I love teaching it. I love when a kid finally gets it. I love when kids are not afraid of it.”
Math and all subjects were thrown a curve when the COVID-19 pandemic cut the school year short and many students continued the school year with distance learning engagements, but Freeman was prepared for the fast and nontraditional learning curves.
In her days in south Alabama, she helped her college by teaching online math classes. Many rural counties offered AP and college-level courses but lacked the specialized instructors. Freeman was able to teach both in-person classes in the day time and online precalculus classes at night.
Freeman has skills and abilities that she hasn't tapped into since 2012, but COVID-19 created new demands on teaching methods. She said she recognizes the nature of online learning versus traditional learning, but she is still cautious moving forward.
“Online learning is so different from traditional classroom settings,” she said. “I'm very passionate about a lot of things and so if I had to pick one word, it's ‘connected.’ Connecting with the kids on every level and not just connecting with the kids in regard to the current issues going on in our world.”
The pandemic has widened the role of many teachers to supportive roles and crisis mitigation. During the spring shutdown, teachers had a pool of students to call and follow. Students never stopped preparing for AP classes or the tests required to gain the college credits.
Freeman helped some students with school-related issues and others need emotional support and referrals for intervention. Again, this was not new to Freeman and she recalled working in the Austin school system as a member of the Learning Support Center. The team worked with a segmented population facing academic or social challenges that might lead to negative outcomes or feed the "school-to-prison pipeline."
Connecting in and out of the classroom is important to Freeman. She sponsors the Beta Club, is a part of extracurricular events and offered support to students active in this summer’s social justice efforts.
She is equally engaged as a wife and mother in Zachary. She is married to an Episcopal priest who is the rector of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church and they have three children. One son has graduated from Zachary High and another is a junior. Her daughter is an elementary school student.
The upcoming school year finds the Freeman children on different extremes on going back to school. Her son plays football and is on the wresting team. He is excited about his junior year and all the activities and competition it will bring. His 9-year-old sister is cautious about “germs” and the possibility of getting sick. Freeman said her daughter would definitely be a candidate for the 100% virtual option in Zachary.
The possibility of working five days a week with two children on different schedules is a challenge for even a Dream Teacher nominee.
“I’m a teacher and a lot of times teachers are kind of removed from the situation,” she said. “But, I live in this community and my kids go to school in this community. Whatever I am asking from the kids is no more than I would expect as a parent.”
COVID-19 has also delayed the 2021 Teacher of the Year award process. Last year’s 2020 winners were honored at a July 19 gala. Freeman is a semifinalist and interviews are needed before the finalists are chosen. The principle and vice principal from Zachary High did come out for pictures and the presentation of yard signs honoring the Dream Teacher semifinalists.
“When they came to take pictures on June 30, I thought it was gonna be like a Publishers Clearing House thing where they're like ‘surprise, you're a finalist,’” she said. “But they did not do that.”
The process for selecting a Louisiana Teachers of the Year begins at the local level. Each school within every public or public charter school district is eligible to select a Teacher of the Year subject to their own selection criteria. Those individual local school nominations are sent to the district level for further review and consideration.
Each district superintendent or public charter school District may select three outstanding teachers to forward to the State Department of Education for competition at the state level. Of the three district nominations, there will be one elementary, one middle school, and one high school teacher selected.
Freeman continues to wait, but she is also busy preparing for the start of the 2020-2021 school year that is less than a month away, but she said that the process is a way to raise awareness of the teaching process and the challenges and heroes in the teaching profession.
“I think that the Dream Teachers is an opportunity to learn about the teacher and their background and all of the excellence that they're doing,” she said. “But it's also an opportunity for others to learn about your platform and those things in which you're passionate.”