It was hardly a surprise when Katelyn Smith, a senior at Golden Triangle Early High School, was awarded STAR Student recognition by the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC) last month.
After all, Smith had the highest ACT score (29) in her class and, with one exception, hadn’t made anything lower than an A since third grade.
“I did get a B in music appreciation one year, I think it was my sophomore year,” Smith said.
It’s the “teacher” part of the award that proved surprising in Smith’s case.
Jennifer Smith, Katelyn’s mom, was with her daughter when Katelyn’s school counselor told her that, as part of her STAR Student recognition, she would be able to select a teacher to share her award.
“The counselor told her it could be any teacher she had ever had, from elementary school through high school,” Jennifer said. “Katelyn asked if that included kindergarten. I looked at her and knew what she was thinking. I said, ‘You’re talking about Mrs. Evans, aren’t you?’”
Jean Ann Evans, 59, taught kindergarten for 31 years before retiring three years ago — 27 years at Fairview Elementary in Columbus and, after a one-year break, four more years at Heritage Academy.
“Teaching those children was my true love,” said Evans, who says she can remember the faces, if not always the names, of almost every one of the more than 600 children she has taught over those three-plus decades.
“Someone will come up to me and tell me they were in my class, and no matter how old they are, I begin to see their little faces in my mind.” Evans said.
Remembering Katelyn was especially easy since the Evans and Smiths both attend Fairview Baptist Church and Jean and Jennifer are Facebook friends. But Evans believes she would remember Katelyn even had their paths never crossed after Katelyn left her classroom.
While Katelyn said she cannot recall her first meeting with Evans, the memory of it remains distinct in Evans’ mind.
“It was at our parent-teacher meeting before school started that year,” Evans said. “Katelyn and her parents came in and (Katelyn) walked right over to me. She didn’t hang back like some children do. There was a magnetic board in the classroom, and she and I went over and started interacting. I could tell from that moment that she loved to learn.”
That wasn’t always the case with the children who came through her classroom, Evans said.
“Not every child is a perfect student when they come in,” Evans said. “Some of them come from really difficult backgrounds and if (school) isn’t a good experience at the start, which is where I was my whole teaching career, it can really hold them back. But if they come in and they feel loved right off the bat, it makes them comfortable. You find one positive thing you can say to that child every day and once their self-esteem is built up, they’ll love coming to school and love learning. They will do everything you ask them to do. I found that to be true every year I taught.”
When Katelyn finished talking to her counselor about choosing her STAR Teacher, she began to think about all the memorable teachers she had had.
“I had a few teachers in mind,” Katelyn said. “I had to narrow it down. Mrs. Evans was definitely at the top of the list, but I wanted to be sure.”
After sleeping on it, Katelyn woke up convinced of her choice, “Mrs. Evans was the one,” she said.
While Katelyn may not remember her first meeting with Evans, she vividly recalls much of her kindergarten year and especially the impact Evans had on her.
“She made everything about learning super fun,” Katelyn said. “It was never, ‘You are in school and this is something you have to do,’ With Mrs. Evans, it was always, ‘This is something fun we get to do.’ She was so excited about everything and had a way of making learning fun. That’s something that has stayed with me. I still love to learn. That’s why I thought she was the right choice (for STAR Teacher), because it started with her.”
VIckie Powell, the MEC’s coordinator of the STAR program, said Katelyn’s choice is unusual, if not unprecedented.
“I couldn’t say if (Evans) is the first kindergarten teacher chosen as a STAR Teacher,” Powell said. “We’ve recognized more than 20,000 teachers since we started 56 years ago. But it has to be pretty rare. Usually, students choose a high school teacher, not all the time but most of the time. I like the idea, though, because it shows that any teacher at any grade level can have that kind of an impact on a student.”
But wait! There’s more!
Katelyn allowed her mom to break the news to Evans.
“(Jennifer) sent me a Facebook message for me to call her,” Evans said. “So when I called, she told me that Katelyn had been chosen as a STAR student. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful. I’m so proud of her.’”
“I’m sure she thought I was just calling to tell her about Katelyn, “Jennifer said. “I told her I had some more news.”
“She told me Katelyn had picked me as her STAR Teacher,” Evans said. “I was speechless. I got very emotional.”
Katelyn said the STAR Student recognition is an affirmation.
“I would like to think it shows that I am a dedicated student and that I love learning,” said Katelyn, who will attend college at the University of Southern Mississippi this fall and plans to become a forensic scientist.
For Katelyn, that love of learning returns to the source: Mrs. Evans, aka STAR Teacher.
“I’m proud to be recognized, but I’m more proud of Katelyn,’ Evans said. “That’s how teachers are. We certainly don’t do this for the money. Our reward is watching students learn and grow. I’m sure Katelyn has had so many wonderful teachers, so I’m honored that she remembered me in such a sweet way. When (Jennifer) told me about it, I was blown away. I still am.”