It was during her time as a Girl Scout that Cicely Woodard realized her dream of teaching. While working to earn a badge, she taught French to some young Girl Scouts, and found herself “on a high” from the experience. It was her “aha” moment that clued her into a passion and talent for instruction.
“Once the teaching bug bit me, being a teacher was my dream. I just knew I wanted to make an impact on the world. I knew I could influence lives, I knew I could help some young people do what they wanted to do.”
Teaching is her gift, and she has a natural positive energy – the early riser has never drank coffee – that makes her a dynamic force in the classroom.
Woodard has spent the last two years teaching math at West End Middle Prep, and the 13-year veteran with Metro Schools was recently named a district-wide Teacher of the Year. She is now in the running for Tennessee Teacher of the Year with the potential to advance to the National Teacher of the Year in 2018.
“It was just a true honor and blessing,” she said, with a deep sincerity. Woodard was honored May 2 at Lipscomb University’s Allen Arena, along with all teachers of the year that included Paula Pendergrass of Robertson Academy (K-4 elementary school) and Eric Gambill of Hume-Fogg Magnet High School.
“I know there are so many teachers who work tirelessly across our classrooms. It just means I represent so many teachers who believe in kids, in the power of education and who want students to be successful in the future,” Woodard said.
A Memphis native, Woodard came to Nashville to earn her Master’s of Education at Vanderbilt. She did her student teaching with Metro, and began teaching in the school system after graduation.
“(The first year of teaching) was hard, extremely hard. What is important to remember is that teachers early in their career need lots of support. They need guidance, mentors to talk to, team members to talk to who will answer questions without judgment. It’s not an easy profession, but in the end, it’s so rewarding.”
For Woodard, that reward is when students find inspiration in her classroom to develop their purpose, figure out their next steps and succeed beyond the classroom.
Those rewards come in the form of emails from high school graduates who thank Woodard for challenging them, or students who tell her that she inspired them to go to college, or teenagers who tell her how they plan to better their communities.
Woodard’s impact on students begins in her math classroom where she takes a practical and “real world” approach when introducing 8th graders to mathematics concepts.
Woodard fell in love with math, “the concreteness of it,” in high school, but her own introductory brushes with the subject weren’t the most natural. “It wasn’t easy for me. It wasn’t my best subject,” she explained. “(But) I wanted to be good at it even though it was hard. It gives me a very unique perspective.
"There are some students who come in and feel like math isn’t for them; by the end of the year, many of them are telling me that ‘math is my favorite subject.’ They’re inspired to do even more math. That’s really exciting to see that transition.”
Woodard presents math concepts in what she calls “tasks” – problems the students might have to eventually figure out in their everyday lives. She picked up some of her teaching style in college at the University of Memphis, and credits “really powerful professional development” in helping her teach “high level tasks.” Woodard served as a core coach in Metro Schools where she shared her own teaching knowledge with other teachers, as well as learned from teachers in the process.
“I try to make sure that (students) get lots of touches with the material, that they experience it in different ways, that they can find one way that really sticks with them. They get a lot of opportunities to work together in small groups, opportunities to work individually (private think time). I try to give them a variety of teaching strategies so they can find one way that helps them learn.”
Woodard this year had her students help her choose a carpet cleaning company for her home – the task assigned to learning systems of equations.
“We looked at the service fees and how much they charged for each room. They created graphs, tables. By the end, they told me what carpet company I should go with.”
Woodard said that if students come home from school exhausted, or “needing to veg out on the couch,” it’s because “they’re working really hard at school.”
“They work tremendously hard to learn and to grow. I want parents to know how important their relationship is with them. Kids come in and talk about mom and dad, and aunts and uncles, even if they don’t say it to them, they really appreciate the relationships.”
Her advice to parents: “(Students) need time with positive adults who want to see them (be) successful.”
Teaching in a district where 75 percent of students are economically disadvantaged means Woodard is focused on creating a safe classroom where students know what to expect.
“They look to me to be positive and stable because some of them don’t have positive and stable environments.
“I have students who are going home to take care of siblings because their single parent is working in the evenings. I have students who show up and may not like what they’re serving in the cafeteria, but that’s all they have. I often bring snacks to school; I’m feeding kids quite often. I’ve given away hats, gloves and jackets in the winter because kids don’t have what they need.”
Woodard also looks at her classroom from the perspective of a mother – her young sons attend Metro schools.
“I think it makes me think as a teacher ‘would I want my child to be in this class?’ and ‘am I doing the absolute best I can so that my child can thrive in this classroom?’ It really made me think of my relationship with my parents as well; what is it that I would want to know as a mother about school and my child? It impacts how I communicate with parents.”
Woodard said one of the biggest surprises during her teaching career has been the supportive community that’s wrapped around her and other teachers. She said the support system – parents, colleagues, administrative staff – is ready to help her when she needs it.
“Teaching doesn’t have to be something that I do all by myself. We are all on the same team educating children.”
When she’s away from the classroom and home with her husband and boys, Woodard has found it’s important to avoid the temptation of multi-tasking, and be present in the moment.
“At dinner time, we’re having dinner and we’re talking. (My husband and I) work really hard together and we’re very intentional about being focused on (the boys). When they say their prayers, I’m not thinking about anything else except them in those moments. They play sports on the weekends, so we drop everything on the weekends and support them.
“That means that some mornings I’m getting up really early. Colleagues say, ‘Cicely, why aren’t you sleeping?’ It’s 5 a.m. and I’m emailing. But that’s the time I’m up getting stuff done before everyone else gets up in my house.”
So it’s no surprise that when asked what she would change about her job, her response was “I want more time.”
“There is so much to accomplish and just not enough time in terms of making sure that I am prepared for class, that I have communicated with students in the most appropriate time, having time to plan with my teammates and having time grading papers and entering grades. It is really important to be able to manage our time well.”
The 2017-18 Tennessee Teacher of the Year will be announced in September.