Briana Smith is excited.
On Monday, she will greet her students at Ferguson-Easley Elementary School on Seabrook Road. It will be the first time she’ll see them without masks since the start of the pandemic. She’s looking forward to a traditional school year that includes social interactions with her students and colleagues for the first time in years.
Ferguson-Easely has 352 students enrolled in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“I always have the first-day jitters,’’ Smith said Friday as she cut out letters to put on her bulletin board. “But I’m not as overwhelmed as in previous years. Maybe it’s because of my experience.”
Smith teaches fifth-grade math, and only math, to what Principal Eric McLaurin calls blocked classes.
In a nearby classroom, Danielle Wynter was also putting last-minute touches on her room displays. Like Smith, Wynter is readying her room for the 19 third-graders scheduled to be in her room on Monday. But that number is growing, she said. Wynter teaches all subjects in her classroom.
And like Smith, Wynter also is looking forward to more normal settings: children interacting with each other and parents once again inside the building being a part of their children’s learning experience.
But on Monday, Wynter said, the morning will start with building a relationship with her new charges.
“I’ll have a smile on my face,” she said, emphasizing her goal to make learning fun and to get the most out of her students.
Smith and Wynter are what McLaurin calls “Gold Star teachers.’’
“They are teachers who come in this building and display exemplary leadership,” he said.
McLaurin said they are teachers who are available both inside and outside of the school for their students.
“We look at their data showing growth among their students, and their relationships with parents, students and peers, and with their knowledge of the curriculum,” McLaurin said.
Currently, six teachers are designated as Gold Star teachers. “Six right now and three more working on becoming Gold Star teachers,” he said.
The school building also appeared ready for Monday, when students on the traditional school calendar return to the classroom. Its floors are newly waxed and shiny, and hallways and classrooms are colorfully decorated with teaching materials.
McLaurin is quick to point out the school has some innovative aspects. The media center houses a broadcast booth used for daily school announcements.
The broadcast delivers news events about the school, and students operate the cameras and handle on-camera duties. But for the first few weeks, McLaurin said he would make the daily announcements.
The school also set up several outdoor classrooms with tables, chairs and benches. McLaurin said instead of talking about the weather, students sit outside and learn about weather or other outdoor learning activities.
“The building doesn’t matter. People with compassion for kids is what counts,” Smith said. “I’m just excited to be here,” she added.
Both teachers have taught at Ferguson-Easely for the past three years. Smith started her teaching career 12 years ago, and Wynter was last year’s Teacher of the Year at Ferguson-Easely.
McLaurin also came to the school as its principal three years ago. He started as a teaching assistant in 2004, became a teacher in 2009, an assistant principal in 2016, and principal in 2020.
All three are in a profession they love, and a profession that is seeing a diminishing number of educators, both on a national and local level. Cumberland County Schools earlier this week announced it had 200 vacancies in its certified classroom teachers and classroom staff, of which 117 are instructors.
McLaurin said he also fears losing good teachers through attrition. His library/media specialist is a military spouse whose husband is scheduled for reassignment elsewhere.
Wynter is a native of Jamaica here on a five-year work visa. She must return to Jamaica in two years and stay for an extended period of time before she can return to the United States.
“I love teaching and the joys it brings me,’’ Wynter said. “To help a child read or even spell their name, it’s what drives me to be here every morning at 7 a.m. and be on station at 7:15.”