Buckled Up & Ridin’ the Roller Coaster: My 3 Weeks as a GA TOTY Finalist

Thanks to the support of the outstanding Coweta County School System, I was fortunate to become a contender for the Georgia Teacher of the Year (TOTY). The first part of this post is a thank you to each of my colleagues who have helped me, and the second part is a memoir of the thrilling 3 week run I experienced as a TOTY Finalist.

On April 25, my assistant principal asked me to take a phone call during class. (For those of you who don’t work in a school, teachers don’t take phone calls during class). He had a big smile on his face, and I quickly figured out what this call would bring.

On the other end of the line was Georgia State Superintendent Richard Woods, who explained that I had been chosen as one of ten finalists for Georgia Teacher of the Year. He told me that the state was proud of my work, and I was immediately honored, knowing that I work alongside many wonderful teachers.

Five months earlier, I submitted the seven essays that comprised the Georgia Teacher of the Year (TOTY) application. I wrote narratives on the topics of professional learning activities, my biography, community involvement, my teaching philosophy, the teaching profession, education issues and trends, and a speech that I could deliver as teacher of the year.

Over the next few days, I was showered with sincere, warm wishes from administrators, teachers, students, and families from across Coweta County School System. The cashier at Publix and the Starbucks barista wished me well, having seen my picture on the Newnan Times-Herald’s Facebook page.

It was during that time that I knew this honor was a win for our county. Yes, I had written those essays as an individual, but every sentence I wrote was based on my experiences as a representative of Coweta County Schools.

–  Thank You to Everyone on the Team –

Since 2008, I have taught more than 6,330 hours at East Coweta High School (ECHS). Not a single one of my lessons is a product of my own individual planning, but they are a result of all the teaching strategies I have gathered from teachers on my chemistry team and in my ECHS family.

Assistant Principal Patrick Sullivan and Department Chair Stefanie Easterwood keep our science department running smoothly and efficiently. They set high standards for us, and our teachers always deliver. I admire each of the science teachers at ECHS for their unique style and expertise.


Letitia Crosby, Stefanie Easterwood, Patrick Sullivan, Regina Ahmann, Cathrine Nolan, Missy Watson, me, Heather Conlin

One of my proudest achievements, our development of the East Coweta HS chapter of Science Olympiad, has been a group effort. While I am the designated head coach, there would be no team without the dedication of Candice Mohabir. Heather Conlin, Regina Ahmann  Karen Pompeo and Stefanie Easterwood also support the team and have spent several long Saturdays with our awesome STEM kids.

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Stefanie Easterwood, me, Regina Ahmann, Heather Conlin

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With Candice Mohabir at the TAG STEM Education Awards for Science Olympiad








ECHS Science Olympiad at the University of Georgia for a Tournament


Our Science Curriculum Specialist, Dr. Donald White, has truly made STEM come alive in Coweta County. We do so much STEM that we have a Symposium every April to show off all the many STEM-tastic things going on in our schools. Our STEM success would not be possible without Dr. White’s enthusiasm.


With Dr. Donald White on an iScience episode

Along with my technology-saavy friends Micki Byrnes and Matt East, I have had fun presenting at conferences as well as coaching our ECHS friends in all things Google. I appreciate my editor Kelly Jackson (who not only corrects me, but gives me confidence) and my buddy Brent Walburn, who knows when it’s time to take a much-needed break for ping-pong or hula hooping fun.

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Kelly Jackson, Chris, and me

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Playing ping-pong with Brent Walburn


With Matt East and Micki Byrnes at a STEM/Technology Conference








My wonderful friends at Northgate and Newnan High Schools have mentored me in AP Chemistry: Orla Thomas, Cathy Pugh, and Kelley Finger. I have called on each of them in times of urgent need, and they always respond quickly.

Superintendent Steve Barker, Dr. Karen Barker, Board Member Amy Dees, along with Dr. White and Mr. Sullivan graciously wrote recommendation letters for my application.



Superintendent Steve Barker visits my classroom

My dear science team friends have been the greatest support system I can imagine. We are closer-knit than an ordinary group of colleagues; we are a family. When one of us is down, we lift each other up. When one of us is happy, we celebrate together. I don’t know how I got so lucky to be in this family, but I thank God for allowing me to be part of this special group.

– 3 weeks and 3 days –

Now…let me tell you about the biggest 3 week, 3 day roller coaster ride of my life. Yes, roller coasters are fun, and you stand in line for hours anticipating the ride, but, at certain points, you have the urge to toss your cookies. And when you’re flipped upside down, you always double check to make sure your seat belt is buckled up tight.

On Thursday, May 12, all of the ten GA TOTY finalists would go to the Department of Education in Atlanta to be evaluated by three judges. We would each deliver a 3-minute speech and have a 45-minute interview. We would also record a 30-second video titled “Why I Teach.”

Giving speeches creates a huge emotional dichotomy for me. The thought of public speaking makes my heart beat much too vigorously, but at the same time, I absolutely love a good motivational speech. I also have quite a lot to say about the field of education and STEM, so I am always ready with material.

When Superintendent Woods called, it was two days prior to our Coweta County Teacher of the Year Ceremony. I had been asked to give a speech to congratulate all thirty-one of the 2016 Teachers of the Year for our county. Still reeling from the news of Prince’s sudden death only a few days earlier, I wrote a message as all the songs from the Purple Rain soundtrack swirled through my head. I told the teachers that they will never live the glamorous celebrity life or reach worldwide fame, but that they are the real rock stars in our communities.

The three finalists for our county delivered wonderful, heartfelt messages, and we celebrated Shannon Ewing, our 2016 Coweta County Teacher of the Year (TOTY)!

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With ECHS Principal Steve Allen & Matt East,  TOTY ’16

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AP Chem Lab Time

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My student Terrance, who always inspires me

After this excitement subsided, a short 4 days remained before the AP Chemistry exam that my students would take. It was crunch time, and it required every bit of my energy to equip the kids by reviewing every piece of information we had learned since August. On Tuesday, May 3, the AP exam was over. It struck me like a bolt of lightning that I had 9 days remaining to prepare for the biggest event of my career. It was time to focus on May 12, the day that the TOTY finalists would meet at the Georgia Department of Education.

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’16 AP Chem Seniors-Rising Georgia Tech STEM Students

Over the next 9 days, about half of my energy was spent studying and doing research. The remaining half of my energy was spent on figuring out how NOT to worry about my May 12 performance. Part of my strategy was to talk to my family, my students, and my teacher friends about my anxiety. Talking about my concerns made it seem less overwhelming and prevented me from building up a collection of frazzled nerves. Former Georgia TOTY Lorraine Johnson, Principal at Madras Middle School, made me smile as she told me her own stories of successes and mishaps that happened as she went through the finalist process.

The other part of my anxiety-reducing strategy was to fully prepare. I did extensive research on everything that would be important for May 12, “judgement day”. I watched YouTube videos of TOTY finalists from both Georgia and South Carolina. I watched Ellen DeGeneres interview the National TOTY. I read through the Facebook page of Ernie Lee, our well-chosen 2015 Georgia TOTY. I studied a variety of TED Talks videos, hoping to learn presentation strategies and gather material for my speech.

Watching NBC’s TODAY Show, I paid close attention to see which presentation styles I liked the best. I read books on what makes a good TED talk. I analyzed every word I spoke in order to improve my own style. There was more research I could do, but if I was going to remember to pick up the kids from soccer and cook dinner, I would have to take some breaks.

I finally got down to business and started on the 3-minute speech. Armed with the book titled Speeches That Changed the World, I began writing. I had picked up this book years ago, because I do love a good speech. I studied speeches delivered by Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy, Jr.

For two days, I wrote my heart out, and the result was a perfect rendition of everything I needed to say to the teachers of Georgia. I read it out loud, and it sounded terrific. All 9 minutes of it. The speech needed to be 3 minutes, maximum. The majority of it, two-thirds, needed to be cut. So, I chopped, edited and trimmed.

On Mother’s Day, after the gifts and cards, while we still sat at the dining room table, my own mother and dad helped me revise the speech. That’s right….this was not a Mother’s Day for napping, gardening, or watching Hallmark movies.


My Family at the 2015 Coweta County TOTY Event

On Monday, 3 days before the big day, I started memorizing and figuring out how to best structure the words. That evening, my husband asked me to give the speech. After a few times of hearing me say it out loud, he took the paper and marked it up with breaks and pauses so it would flow better.

My speaking voice needed to improve. I complained to him that I wanted to do it my way because I sounded just like Martin Luther King, Jr. He stopped me and gently explained to me that I didn’t actually sound like MLK. Hmmm….maybe I didn’t.

I went to bed, disappointed that my husband hadn’t told me how wonderful I was, but that he had given me constructive criticism. I guess I had to accept the feedback if I wanted to get this right. By 6 AM on Tuesday, I was wide awake. I walked outside in the yard with my dog Bentley and started practicing the speech with my new voice, my new syntax. It was starting to sound better, and by 8 AM, I had practiced the speech at least ten times.

Although I rehearsed it numerous times at home, it was now time to deliver it to students and teachers. I set up a podium in the classroom and practiced with a group of kids and teachers. I encouraged them to give me feedback, both positive and negative. No matter what they thought, they were all required to clap really big at the end.

What did my own children think about all this business? Well, they had heard that the Georgia TOTY was awarded a car to use for travel during a one year sabbatical. The thought of having a new car to take the place of our 2005 minivan was very exciting. Instead of a Toyota van, we could have a TOTY car, which would undoubtedly be extremely sporty.

I came home from school and gave the speech to the video camera. I did this several times – while wearing the dress and shoes that I would wear on May 12. Yes, I know it sounds goofy, but it was a tip I had found in all my research: practice in front of the camera wearing the same clothes you will have on for the real deal.

I took Wednesday, May 11, off from work. The plan for the day was to relax (ha!) and to read 2016 Top Ten Issues to Watch, a publication that had been mailed to me right after I became a finalist. There were quite a few educational initiatives and acronyms that I needed to learn to be ready for the interview. Throughout my day off, I reviewed my seven essays in order to have material ready for the interview. I rehearsed answers, and I typed out a list of reasons why I love being a teacher.

By Wednesday, I hadn’t consumed any caffeine for over a week. So much adrenaline was piping through my veins that I had cut back on all my coffee and tea consumption. My husband had given up on drinking the coffee I brewed in the mornings – it was all decaf now. I was living in a state of heightened awareness, and I definitely didn’t need anything preventing me from falling asleep at night.

At my gym class that morning, I did bigger high kicks, deeper knee squats, and longer lunges than I have ever done in my life. My body was filled with so much energy that someone could have bottled it into tiny packages and sold them at gas stations as five hour increments of wide-eyed awakeness.

The big day finally arrived. It was Thursday, May 12. My husband had gone to work, the kids were at school, and the dogs were wondering why I was at home. My parents had planned to drive me to Atlanta, and they picked me up at the scheduled time of 9:30 AM.

As we drove, I had the most unusual feeling….I wasn’t nervous. Why wasn’t I nervous? I wasn’t quite sure, but I just enjoyed the feeling. It had been a long time since I felt relaxed. The big day was here, and I was prepared. I was ready, and I had practiced well and I had practiced enough. I have never felt fully prepared for anything in my life. But on this day, I was ready, and it felt good.


At the Georgia Department of Education

As we got off the interstate and approached our destination, I appreciated the fact that I didn’t have to make the drive myself. First of all, as we maneuvered all the hectic lane changes as I-75/85 approaches I-20, I wasn’t sweating like I normally would.

Secondly, as we drove past the Georgia State Capitol building, I looked up and saw the bright, shiny gold dome. The perfect blue sky behind it made it so stunning and so beautiful, and I realized I had never really looked at it up close and seen its magnificence. I was born and raised in Georgia, and all of my work has been dedicated to improving our state, so this moment struck me profoundly. I felt immensely proud at that moment to have been invited to this occasion. On this day, I would represent all the many superb teachers in Coweta County. I was also looking forward to meeting the nine other teachers who were wonderful representatives of our chosen career.

As I arrived at the building, I was confident and ready to meet the judges and finalists. One by one, I met each of the nine TOTY finalists. I sensed that we were all eager to meet each other because we were the only ones who knew what it felt like to live in these “finalist shoes” for almost three weeks.


At the Georgia State Capitol Building

I had conversations with several of the teachers. I remember Heather Cocke agreeing with me when I mentioned that the last few weeks felt like a combination of preparing for either a wedding, a beauty pageant, or to run as a candidate for President of the United States. Finalist Sara Wilder had on a similar dress to mine, and I told her that, when planning what to wear, I had looked up the videos of previous finalists. She said she had done the same thing. Ha! I was starting to realize that my peers had prepared in much the same ways I did.

At lunch, I sat right between my high school science colleagues Debra Russell and Casey Bethel. We were thrilled to represent science and talked about our schools and the classes that we teach. I asked Debra to smile at me while I gave my speech, and she did just that. She even nodded her head at my important points and wrote me a little note telling me what a great job I did. No wonder she was a TOTY finalist!


With Casey Bethel (Douglas County), Debra Russell (Rockdale County)

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With Kiera Patterson (ECHS ’11, GT ’15) and Candice Mohabir…All 3 of us are GT Graduates!

In almost exact thirty minutes, our group of ten delivered our carefully prepared speeches. They were all wonderful, and many great stories were told. Superintendent Woods and the three judges listened carefully and intently to our messages. I knew that all of our hard work had been worthwhile.

While we ate lunch, Superintendent Woods congratulated us and spoke admirably about everything we had to say during the speeches. After lunch was the scheduled time for my interview. I walked into the room to sit at the assigned table. I faced a daunting row of three tables, side by side, at which the judges sat. It reminded me a bit of a police interrogation, but I quickly dismissed the thought from my mind. After an initial moment of trepidation, I felt quickly at ease because the judges were all genuinely kind and likable people.

They asked me questions about the culture of my classroom, my view on social media’s role in the classroom, and a few questions about those educational issues I had been reading about. There didn’t seem to be any right or wrong answers, but the judges simply wanted to get to know the finalists through these conversations.

In response to one of the questions they asked, I explained that a teacher has many responsibilities but that it’s virtually impossible to get it all done by the end of the workday. I then told a story that was meaningful to me. As the story goes, one day I was going on and on to my student assistant, Chandler, about how much more I needed to get done before class started. I complained that my “to do” list was too long and impossible to conquer.

After Chandler had left for the day, I discovered a note he had written and taped to my computer screen. It was one of those small yellow legal pad papers, and he had titled it “Mrs. Milam’s To Do List.” There was one single item on the list: “Teach Kids Chemistry”.

Chandler had actually been a student in my chemistry class the prior year. He was one of my top students, but he wouldn’t have noticed the little things that may have been left undone on my list. His simple message made it clear that, at the end of the day, if we have taught our kids well, then we have fulfilled our ultimate role as a teacher.


Tobie, Candice Mohabir, Karen Pompeo, me, Chandler Workman, Stefanie Easterwood on MOLE Day

I never planned to use that story in my interview, but I was glad to have the opportunity to tell it. Throughout this conversation I included many of my experiences at ECHS. The interview session was a great experience, and I was honored that such great educators were interested in what I had to say.

Afterwards, I had the opportunity to hang out with finalists Mario Miranda and Casey Bethel. It was fun chatting, and I was glad that the “judging” was over for me. That evening, I relished the fact that the big day was behind me….no more planning, no more fretting. I slept better than I had in quite awhile.

At work the next day, I had renewed energy because I would now be able to focus on my classes and on all the end-of-the-year details. I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend and took my son to a soccer tournament on the north side of Atlanta, enjoying the sunshine and the time with my son and his friends.

Monday, May 16 arrived, and I knew that this week would bring the announcement of the new Georgia Teacher of the Year. I was ready all day, eagerly awaiting the news. By the end of the day, we heard nothing. On Tuesday morning, I was certain that this was the day we would hear the announcement. By the end of Tuesday there was no news. Wednesday, I thought, would be the perfect day for an announcement. Mid-week…I should have predicted this. Wednesday evening arrived, and we still heard nothing.

By Thursday morning, I gave up. I figured that they were waiting until Friday to publicize the new Georgia TOTY. In the back of my mind, I considered that maybe none of this had ever happened. Maybe this whole Teacher of the Year thing was just a weird dream I had imagined.

My friend Stefanie wanted me to text her as soon as I heard the news, but others were more cautious. My friend Candice asked “You don’t want us to talk about Teacher of the Year, do you?” A few people felt like they were walking on eggshells around me, but I was still eager to talk about it.

As the week progressed, I told my husband that I was starting to worry about how I would react when I heard the news, regardless of the outcome. As I considered how it might turn out, I quickly fluctuated between thinking I had a 10% chance of becoming the Georgia Teacher of the Year and being fully confident that I would be the chosen one.

About 4:30 on Thursday, I was working at my school computer when my phone rang. Candice had already left work, and on her drive home, she called to ask if I had heard any news yet. I said no. Why would she ask me this? She knows I would tell her right away.

She cautiously told me, “Well, I just heard on the radio that they announced teacher of the year today.” She paused, waiting for me to say something. I quickly searched Georgia Teacher of the Year on the computer. In a few nanoseconds, I found information on both Twitter and ajc.com.

The Georgia Department of Education had just announced Casey Bethel of Douglas County as the new Georgia Teacher of the Year. Well, here it was. The big moment I had been waiting for….it was really happening, and, as far as I could tell, I was doing okay. One thing that I had known the whole time is that I would know the person who would bear the title as Georgia Teacher of the Year. One of my nine new friends, one of these awesome finalists, would become the teacher representative for our state. No matter which teacher they chose, I would be happy. We would all be well-served by the selection.

On Twitter, I saw the photos of Casey being showered with balloons in his classroom. He was teaching class, just like it was an ordinary day. He looked surprised and thrilled to become the chosen teacher. I was happy for him, and I was proud to see him looking like a true science teacher in his feature photo. Wearing his lab coat and holding a molecular model, he beamed a big smile and looked just like a State Teacher of the Year.


Casey Bethel, 2017 GA TOTY!

Was I disappointed that I didn’t win? Not too much, and only for an hour. Then I got over it and started thinking about the next school year.

Did I want to be the Georgia TOTY? Yes and no. Sure, it would have been fun, but it is a busy time traveling and meeting fellow educators. It is time spent outside of the classroom, away from students. As much as I love being with other teachers, it’s the kids who give me energy.

If you ask me how I feel about being a GA TOTY finalist, I will tell you that it was a wonderful experience and that I am genuinely happy about how it all worked out.

I am happy with the outcome because:

…I know Casey Bethel will be an awesome Georgia Teacher of the Year. He is energetic, filled with passion for teaching, and has a warm, friendly personality. He will do a tremendous job representing our field.

…I realize what a true privilege it has been to be part of the ten finalists. I am proud to be part of the Coweta County School System and proud of all that we have accomplished while fulfilling our mission to serve students.

…I can spend this upcoming year teaching AP Chemistry to our terrific STEM kids.

…I can be at ECHS everyday during my daughter’s senior year and be part of her leadership experience with Science Olympiad.

…I can spend this upcoming year teaching my sophomore son’s group of friends as they take first year chemistry. (Hopefully I can recruit some of them to take AP Chemistry!)

…I will be able to drive my 8th grade son to school every morning for his last year in middle school.

…I can give a speech every day to the people who truly ignite my passion for teaching: the students in my chemistry classroom.

…I can spend every day with all of my best friends.

…I can get home every night to eat dinner and hang out with my husband, our kids, and the dogs.


Ken, Cooper, Josh, me, Mackenzie Milam

I have some new projects in store for next year, including writing for Chemistry Solutions, the periodical for the American Association of Chemistry Teachers. I also plan to finish writing my novel, a thriller about teenagers who use their STEM skills to solve a mystery that strikes their community.

Meanwhile, I will be resuming my morning caffeine habit and sleeping well at night.