The 2022 Georgia Teacher of the Year is Georgia Southern University alumna Cherie Dennis (‘10) who has lived and studied across the nation from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, California, and settled in Savannah, where she began a career in teaching more than 12 years ago.
Dennis, a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, went to Georgetown University to earn an undergraduate degree in Japanese with a concentration in language teaching. She continued her education at Stanford University and earned a master’s in East Asian studies. Her goal was to teach Japanese, and everything was going to plan until just weeks before graduation when the grant fell through for a high school exchange program she was supposed to work for in Washington.
“I looked for jobs teaching Japanese in schools within California, but it was too close to the start of a new school year, and there are not as many positions available to teach Japanese as there are other languages,” she said. “I had to start looking for some other type of employment.”
Dennis searched for jobs that had ties to Japan and for the next several years worked for advertising agencies with clients like Toyota and Clorox, in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“I don’t regret my time in advertising,” said Dennis. “It was fun and challenging.”
After taking time off to be a stay-at-home mom close to family in Savannah, she saw an opportunity to return to her original dream of being a teacher. Dennis enrolled in the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Early Childhood Education program at Georgia Southern’s Armstrong Campus in Savannah to earn an initial teaching certification.
She started her career as a third grade teacher at White Bluff Elementary, and a year later moved to Hesse K-8 School where she taught third grade for another six years before transitioning to teach English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).
“I love teaching,” she said. “This career just makes my heart feel good.”
Working with an average of 60 children per year, Dennis teaches ESOL students in grades K-5, focusing on their English reading, writing, listening and speaking proficiency skills. Virtual learning during the pandemic was an additional challenge for many of these students.
“It’s an extra hurdle for ESOL students,” she explained. “The need to provide family support was magnified more than ever before. It has always been at the heart of what ESOL teachers do, but when families do not have access to the internet or they don’t understand the technology or the assignments in English to be able to assist their children as much as they would like to, reaching and teaching our students who are already facing the difficulties of learning in a language that is not primary to them becomes increasingly complex.”
Thankfully, Dennis’ passion for foreign languages has assisted her in being able to communicate on a basic level with students and their families, as she knows fundamental Spanish in addition to Japanese.
“The needs of the students each year can be very different from the previous year,” she said. “It’s a challenge, and it involves having a pulse on who your kids are and differentiating and individualizing instruction to meet their needs.”
For the next year, Dennis will continue to collaborate with her ESOL team at Hesse, but as the Georgia Teacher of the Year, she will focus on the responsibilities that come with the title such as serving as an ex officio member on the State Board of Education and traveling as an ambassador for teaching in Georgia.
“I get to be an advocate and voice for teachers, students and families in Georgia,” she explained. “I will also be responsible for going around the state and speaking at various events such as conferences, workshops, new teacher orientations or professional development sessions to share my experiences.”
As the state’s teacher of the year, Dennis will be in the running for the 2022 National Teacher of the Year (NTOY) facilitated by the Council of Chief State School Officers. The NTOY is announced each spring.
“I am really humbled and flattered by this award,” she said. “I don’t do what I do alone, and what I do is only a piece of the puzzle of what educators do as a whole,” said Dennis. “I can think of so many teachers who go above and beyond every single day, especially since COVID. Teachers have poured their hearts and souls into giving their students what they need to the best of their ability in the most trying of circumstances. It’s wonderful to have affirmation for the work that I have done, but I feel the need to share it with everybody who has been with me along the way and who I continue to work with every day.”