By LOGAN NEILL
BROOKSVILLE -- Nearly 30 years ago, Suzanne Hays stood at the head of a classroom for the first time as a teacher.
Before her sat 35 fourth-grade students, most of whom were assigned to her at Northside Elementary for remediation. For the young educator fresh out of college, it was indeed a trial by fire.
"It was an eye opener to say the least," Hays remembers. "Basically, I was part of an experiment called open-concept teaching. We had four classrooms in one room with a total of 120 students. It was very noisy with kids basically running around all over the place. I really didn't know I was going to make it to the end of the school year."
But make it she did. In time, Hays outlasted the open concept fad. She outlasted 10 principals. She even outlasted Northside Elementary, which expanded to become what is now known as Brooksville Elementary.
But perhaps most important, Hays became the kind of teacher she wanted to be back when her own fourth-grade teacher showed her the satisfaction that comes with inspiring students to work diligently to strive for achievement and success.
Earlier this month Hays' steadfast efforts were recognized by the Hernando Education Foundation, which selected the 51-year-old educator to be Hernando County's 2002-2003 Teacher of the Year. For those who have long marveled at her talents, it was a well-deserved honor for a woman whom many say epitomizes the ideals of the profession.
"Suzanne is everything you'd want from a teacher and more," said Brooksville Elementary School principal Sue Stoops. "Her enthusiasm motivates kids and carries beyond the classroom to parents as well. I think she is one of the most dedicated teachers this county has ever had."
The classroom where Hays teaches fourth grade today is vastly different from the teaching atmosphere when she began. Her class size, which at one point in her career topped three dozen pupils, is now limited to 24. Gone are the dust-caked chalkboards and uncomfortable wooden desks, replaced by marker boards and more spacious work desks. Along one wall sits four new personal computers, a technological advance that didn't even exist in 1974.
But one thing that hasn't changed is Hays' commitment to bringing her students a sense of the values and self-worth that the world of learning has to offer. A class motto that hangs on a wall seems to say it all: We are all here to help each other.
"We do quite a bit of hands-on activities, because I believe it teaches them responsibility," said Hays. "Every day they come in knowing in advance what is expected of them and they all work together toward that goal."
Much of that philosophy is tied to keeping students on task. Around the room Hays posts schedules of specific activities such as book report deadlines, spelling tests and computer lab periods.
Hays also stresses the value of teamwork and frequently gives her students class assignments that require them to work together. On a recent morning students working in small teams huddled together to try to solve math problems. The opportunity to share thoughts and ideas is one that her pupils seem to favor.
"It's a lot better than just sitting at your desk and doing them yourself," said 10-year-old Sherree Mullins. "This way, if someone knows how to find the answer we all can learn how to find it. I think it works great."
In addition to emphasizing responsibility to her students, Hays also works toward getting parents more involved in school as well. She hosts several family picnics each year and allows her students to conduct their own parent-teacher conferences. She also organizes student craft fairs and as well as a fall pumpkin party.
"I believe if you were to look closely at the kids who have problems in school you'd find that much of it could be eliminated by more parent involvement," said Hays. "Children always look to their parents for support and encouragement, but if that support is lacking, they can easily lose interest in school."
Many of Hays' personal interests revolve around historic preservation and environmental causes. She has found that many of those interests help open up her students to the world around them. She arranges frequent field trips to area landmarks including museums, state parks and governmental buildings, and has even taken her students bird watching and fossil hunting.
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