Dunaire and Sagamore Hills teachers named among top 10 in metro Atlanta

Two DeKalb County School District (DCSD) teachers have been honored by a metro Atlanta newspaper for their exceptional contributions to education.

Dunaire Elementary music teacher Chelsea Cook and Sagamore Hills Elementary science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teacher Stephanie Spencer were recently honored by The Atlanta-Journal Constitution as part of the 2018 AJC Celebrating Teachers Awards.

“Ms. Cook and Ms. Spencer are two great examples of DeKalb County School District teachers taking local education to the next level,” said Superintendent/CEO Dr. R. Stephen Green. “They have proven, time and time again throughout their careers, to be exceptional educators. While proof of their talent can be seen in each of their classrooms through achievement and genuine student excitement, the abilities of Ms. Spencer and Ms. Cook deserve to be celebrated not just in DeKalb County, but throughout Georgia and beyond! On behalf of the entire district, congratulations to both educators—the honors are well-deserved.”

On Aug. 29, Cook and Spencer were honored at an official ceremony held at the Cox Communications headquarters, near Dunwoody. The two teachers were among 10 chosen out of more than 200 public and private kindergarten through 12th grade nominations.

Chelsea CookCook, an eight-year DCSD employee, is the driving force behind DCSD’s Dynamix DeKalb District Honor Orff Ensemble—a district-wide ensemble that meets weekly to practice instruments, which include xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba and metallophone.

Dynamix will soon travel to the Midwest Clinic in Chicago—the largest band and orchestra conference in the world—to showcase its talent. Cook has also directed the Dynamic Dolphins—a Dunaire-specific version of Dynamix—which performed at the White House, the Sweet Auburn Music Festival, Good Day Atlanta, and more.

Cook was surprised to receive an official nomination from the AJC. She considers the honor proof that her passion for education and music has carried over to her students.

“It’s kind of surreal—I’ve been passed up and never been elected. When I got the call, it hit me that this was really happening,” said Cook. “I think it’s because I love what I do and the passion I have for what I do. I love to see students maximize their potential.”

Cook’s goal each day is to recognize inherent talent and provide a stage to express it. She’s quick to recall a student who sang to her during an audition that eventually performed in New York.

“Originally, I wanted to be an opera singer—that was my goal in life. I was driven as a singer, and I want to see children with the same potential to make it,” Cook said. “Maybe not make it to the Metropolitan Opera or be the next Jay-Z or Beyonce, but make it in the sense they have their talent recognized.”

Cook advises all educators to remain lifelong learners and to surround themselves with smarter, seasoned colleagues. She also offers the same wisdom she passes on to her students: find your talent and sharpen it.

“Find what your niche is. Find what your passion is,” Cook said. “I found what I was good at, and I do everything I can to sharpen and hone it every day. This is the same thing I’ve been doing for eight years—I’ve never changed the level of rigor, the approach I take with students, or the demanded level of excellence.”

Stephanie SpencerSpencer is the founder of Sagamore Hills’ STEM Gems Club—an all-female group of fifth grade students who dedicate their lunch time to discussing STEM-related careers. Students who were part of last year’s STEM Gems Club were already looking forward to careers in mechanical engineering, microbiology, photography, global health, and other careers.

Spencer is also a Georgia Master Gardener as well as a facilitator for Monarchs Across Georgia, two accolades that have afforded her students a monarch butterfly research garden, a bog/pollinator garden, worm bins, and compost heaps. Spencer’s efforts have earned her more than $25,000 in grant money throughout her 31-year career.

Spencer describes earning the award as a humbling experience. She said being named among other talented educators in metro Atlanta is a great honor.

“I was one of the last people named, and when I got up on that stage, I was wondering, ‘What am I doing here?’” said Spencer. “I think what set us apart are the extra things we do outside of the classroom. One teacher drove a book mobile to at-risk neighborhoods; one teacher developed software for people who had suffered a stroke. These are teachers who have gone beyond what was asked of them. While most teachers do this, these are teachers who have gained a wider audience and affected a bigger group of students.”

Spencer advises all educators to transfer their passions into the classroom. As an outdoor enthusiast, Spencer made it a mission to bring her excitement for gardening into the classroom.

“Get them excited—if you’re excited about something, there’s a good chance they will be, too,” Spencer said. “If you’re knowledgeable about a subject, it’s more interesting. Everything has something to do with science, or math, or technology. Look at the standards and apply your passion to it.”

Spencer’s enthusiasm allows her to find new ways to relate her passion for the outdoors to students. She takes a collaborative approach with students when introducing new advances in gardening, which has led to community partnerships with the DeKalb County Federation of Garden Clubs, Donors Choose, the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, and the Dunwoody Nature Center.

“Every year, I find new things,” Spencer said. “Every year, there’s something new that has evolved based on how students react to it. It always leads down a new path in our learning.”