A Morgan County teacher who is recovering from her battle with cancer got a surprise visit from Superintendent Bill Hopkins Jr. on Friday.
So did an elementary teacher who grew up in poverty and worked a full-time job in high school, and a translator who helps the district communicate with its growing Spanish-speaking population.
A three-member crew from the district’s central office presented Brandy Quattlebaum, Melanie Holiday and Elizabeth Denard with flowers, balloons and a prize package before announcing that they were the districtwide teachers and support person of the year.
Quattlebaum, Holiday and Denard — who all grew up wanting to be teachers — will compete to be named the state’s teacher of the year.
Patrick Patterson, director of secondary curriculum and school improvements, said a committee of former teachers of the year and school administrators selected the districtwide winners.
“They receive applications with no names on them,” he said.
Quattlebaum, who teaches at Priceville Elementary, was named Elementary Teacher of the Year, while Holiday, a history teacher at West Morgan High, was selected the Secondary Teacher of the Year. Denard, a translator at West Morgan Elementary, is the district’s Staff Member of the Year.
“They are top-notch educators, some of the best we have in the school system,” Hopkins said.
Quattlebaum, Holiday and Denard, who didn’t know each other before Friday, realized they share a common bond as the school district shuttled them to lunch in a limousine.
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a teacher,” said Holiday, who started this school year after learning she had breast cancer.
Quattlebaum and Denard were the same.
Quattlebaum — a Hartselle High graduate — said she wanted to teach because teachers helped her get through some difficult times in her life. She was the oldest of three children when her mother left the family and “all that we had was my stepdaddy.”
He worked hard, but money wasn’t plentiful, so Quattlebaum got a full-time job at a buffet restaurant in Decatur. She said grades were not a priority because the family was always in financial survival mode.
Quattlebaum said after she took her aptitude test as a senior, a counselor advised her to get a two-year degree in something like counseling and go to work.
“Don’t ever tell me what I can’t do,” she said. “I wasn’t going to accept my situation as my destiny because I wanted to be a teacher.”
Quattlebaum said she found hope in two teachers who pushed her to pursue her dream.
She said she goes the extra mile as a teacher because sometimes students need one person “and you never know if you are that person.”
“I was determined to break the chain, and I tell me students they have the power to change any situation they may be in,” Quattlebaum.
Her daughter, Sadie, is a fourth-grade student at Priceville Elementary, and she sees the things her mother does for students.
“She’s really good and deserves this because she does a lot of extra for students,” Zadie said.
Quattlebaum has a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Athens State University and a master's in educational leadership from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has worked in Morgan County Schools since 2006.
Holiday enrolled at Calhoun the year Quattlebaum started teaching elementary school. She was working on her master’s degree at UNA in June when she learned she had an aggressive form of breast cancer.
“The first thing I thought when the doctor gave me the news is whether I would be able to teach and do my job like I love doing it,” Holiday said.
“She has,” said Brenna Howard, a ninth-grader in Holiday’s history class.
Howard said Holiday understands students and “has a way of saying something when you walk in her class to make you feel better. I love her, and she’s the best teacher in our school.”
Holiday said it wasn’t easy returning to class in August — which was just two months after she was diagnosed. She said she was honest with her students and let them know there would be days when she wasn't feeling well.
“I had to be here, though,” she said.
Holiday said she knows there are students in her classroom with challenges, so it’s her job as a teacher to set the example and let them know that any challenge can be defeated.
She had 20 chemo treatments and was diagnosed cancer-free in December.
“She’s an awesome example for us to follow,” Howard said.
A few miles down the road, Denard is setting the same example for students at West Morgan Elementary, especially the school’s English as a Second Language population, said Principal Becky Burt.
Denard is a translator who communicates with parents and students who speak no or very little English.
Kellie Tanner, who is director of federal programs for Morgan County Schools, said West Morgan has the largest EL student population in the school district. A little more than 210 students, or about 36 percent of the school’s enrollment, is helped by the service Denard provides.
EL teachers at the school describe Denard as a “phenomenal” person who is “gracious, trustworthy” and the first “warm smile” visitors see at West Morgan Elementary. They said the school is better able to reach parents because of her “translation assistance.”
Denard, the daughter of a preacher who graduated from Roanoke College in 2003, said she has always had a love for the Hispanic population and wants to help with the challenges non-English speaking students face.
“I love the day-to-day interaction with parents, and I’ve grown close to some of the kids,” she said.
She had planned to be at a couple’s retreat in Gatlinburg on Friday morning, but school officials told her there was a mandatory faculty meeting.
Denard said she wondered what was happening when Hopkins walked into the gym of what she thought was a school assembly.
“I’m shocked,” she said, adding that she and her husband of 15 years planned to leave Friday afternoon for Gatlinburg.