MOULTRIE -- The teaching profession is ever-changing with state and federal mandates shifting priorities. But one thing doesn't change, said this year's Colquitt County's Teacher of the Year Tracy Willis, and that is her love for her students.

Willis received her honor Tuesday at a reception sponsored by the Moultrie Federated Guild at the newly renovated campus of Cox Elementary.

The audience included her peers.

The ninth grade biology teacher became emotional as the shock of winning sank in and she spoke of her chosen profession and life's work.

"I'll always try and be the kind of teacher that students can come to if they need anything, and they know that I love them," Willis said. "I feel that I reach students, because I know that I care about them first and biology second."

After the ceremony, Willis told The Observer she relies on her "wonderful colleagues" at Colquitt County High School.

"They all lift each other up when you're down," she said.

Ninth grade is a transition year that can be a challenge.

"We're training them for the rest of their career in high school, so we've got to prepare them as best we can," she said.

Willis received a bachelor's and masters in science education from Georgia Southern University and is in her 13th year of teaching. She also has completed the required coursework for gifted certification.

"Poverty is always on the plate of the children of the community, and we have to at least try and understand where they're coming from if we expect them to listen to us in the classroom. There's a real sense of urgency for us as educators to do whatever it takes to reach our lower achievers and throw to them a safety net," she wrote in an essay for the contest.

Willis wasn't alone in receiving accolades.

"I'm just thankful that I work at Okapilco Elementary. My Okapilco family is a big part of my achievement, and I think you just have to be willing to have a positive attitude, nurture and love the children and be flexible with what children are faced with nowadays. I'm proud to be a part of the teaching profession," said finalist Val Bell, second grade teacher.

Bell is in her 17th year of teaching, and this is her second honor as Okapilco's Teacher of the Year.

"The main thing is that you have to have the kids in your heart. You have to be there for the kids. I believe that all kids can learn and want to learn if you give them the opportunity," said finalist Pat Carroll, fourth grade teacher at Hamilton Elementary. "A lot of kids don't have support from the outside, and when you're there you're nurturing them and you're trying to make them feel good about themselves. You want them to feel successful so you set high expectations for them."

Carroll is in her 20th year of teaching, and this is her second distinction as Teacher of the Year for Hamilton.

School and organization level honorees were Clare Tripp, third grade at Cox Elementary School; Lois "Sunshine" Bird, kindergarten teacher at Doerun Elementary; Heather Horne, kindergarten teacher at Funston Elementary; Randy Saturday, sixth grade math at C.A. Gray Middle School; Kim Sumner, second grade teacher at Norman Park; Deidre Redding, third grade teacher at J.M. Odom Elementary; Faye Rowe, third grade at Okapilco Elementary and representative for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators; Barbara Allen, third grade teacher at Stringfellow Elementary School; Dena Mathis, first grade at Sunset Elementary; Clovis Barber, sixth grade math teacher, representative for both W.J. Williams Middle School and the Colquitt County Association of Educators; and Jenny Marion, an upper grades literacy coach at R.B. Wright Elementary.

All school and organization winners received $200 from the Board of Education. Finalists received another $200, and Willis, as Teacher of the Year, was awarded an additional $200.

Daryl Barron representing ALLTEL gave Willis another $500, and Joe Mercer of Jostens, Inc., a school ring and yearbook company, presented Willis with a custom school ring.

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