MOULTRIE -- Stringfellow Elementary School teacher Darlene Reynolds was completely surprised at her distinction as Colquitt County Schools' Teacher of the Year.

Apparently, she's the only one.

Fellow educators rushed to hug Reynolds' neck after her Superintendent Leonard McCoy announced the annual honor.

Reynolds is a literacy coach for kindergarten through second grade at Stringfellow, and this is her fifth teacher of the year honor from that school, as well as third time making the final three.

Since her first day at school as a little girl, Reynolds said, she wanted to be a teacher. The revelation came when she, feeling lost and lonely in her flour sack dress on a playground full of strangers, was comforted by her hero -- her first teacher.

"I was from a poor farm family with eight children to feed. How could I dare to dream a dream so big? But, in my deepest, secret soul, I held on to my dream of becoming a teacher. I watched all my teachers as I journeyed through school. The more I learned, the more impressed I was with teachers. I wanted to be just like those who had touched my life," she said in her application.

Reynolds began pursuing an education degree at Valdosta State College as she also began her career in education as a teacher's aide. With the encouragement of some teachers she worked with, Reynolds stuck with her education, taking one or two classes at a time.

She became a teacher, but her aspirations of a master's degree were cut short when her husband died, and suddenly she had to become both mother and father to her children.

She's now in her 18th year as a teacher at Stringfellow Elementary.

Reynolds said she loves the little ones.

"They just give you so much love. There's no other place you can go where children love you unconditionally. It doesn't matter who you are, where you came from and it doesn't matter what degree you have, they just love you if you let them see that you care for them," she said.

With Gov. Sonny Perdue now in office, Reynolds wants to see Georgia's Choice survive education reform.

"I like the program because it doesn't teach skills in isolation. It teaches the skills, and what they do with them relates to everyday life," she said.

Republican promises of giving control of the classroom back to the teachers intrigue her -- if they deliver.

"If they truly mean that they want to let teachers teach, then I'm all for that. ... If you know you have the power within your grasp to do those things that are going to encourage your children's growth and facilitate what they're doing, then that's good," she said, adding that leeway is necessary when teaching children who learn in different ways.

School board member Roy Reeves applauded his former high school classmate.

"I've known for years that she is one of the most outstanding teachers. Her reputation precedes her winning this award, no doubt about it," Reeves said.

McCoy presented Reynolds with $800 from the school system and a $500 check from ALLTEL. Spud Bowen with Herff Jones, Inc. of Tifton presented her with a Colquitt County Schools ring, establishing a new tradition with the annual honor.

Becky Bevacqua, 11th and 12th grade English teacher at Colquitt County High School, was named high school Teacher of the Year. She is in her 15th year of teaching after receiving her degree in English education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her doctorate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill Law School.

Bevacqua thinks that too much emphasis is being placed on testing.

"Sometimes when you put too much emphasis on testing, you get away from the fact it boils down to a good teacher in the classroom and what goes on between teachers and students," she said.

Bevacqua is a strong advocate of stepping up teacher recruitment to get "good people in and keep them in the profession."

"I think when you do that, then the test scores take care of themselves," she said.

The Middle School Teacher of the Year award went to Stephanie Enfinger, an eighth grade language arts and social studies tea

cher at Willie J. Williams Middle School. She received her degree in early childhood and middle grades education and has taught 23 years.

She was named teacher of the year for Okapilco in 1993 and received the Georgia Middle School Association Regional Team of the Year in 1999.

Highlights in Enfinger's career include teaching some of the same children in kindergarten, third, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, teaching students who became honor graduates, being a band booster and seeing her own children complete their education in Colquitt County Schools.

"During a masters level course at VSU someone shouted, 'Hey, Mrs. Enfinger.' I looked up and saw a former kindergarten student of mine sitting in my class." she said. "What an experience and a motivation to work hard and make an A."

Enfinger said the most important asset for a middle school teacher to have is the ability to entertain.

Colquitt County Association of Educators Teacher of the Year award went to Anna Edgar, a kindergarten teacher at Funston Elementary School. Edgar has been teaching 12 years. She received her bachelor's and master's degrees from Valdosta State University and was selected as teacher of the year from Funston in 1994.

Professional Association of Georgia Educators Teacher of the Year was awarded to Noel Giles, who teaches first grade at Okapilco Elementary School. Giles received her bachelor's and master's from Valdosta State University and is in her 10th year of teaching. Giles has achieved Master Classroom status through the Reading Renaissance Program and was selected as the 2002 PAGE Scholarship recipient.

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