Lifelong learning Teacher of the Year Theresa Ryan relates to, guides her students

A sign hanging above the door of Theresa Ryan’s classroom states, “We are family.” On the walls there’s a kaleidoscope of colors. And on her face, there’s a warm, welcoming smile.

Her third-graders at Citrus Springs Elementary School are on task, quickly counting and drawing circles with just a bit of guidance. They are working on the “Word Problem of the Day” — individualized to each student with their own name and hobbies. Around the room little white boards pop up, with one stating “Ms. Ryan is the best,” along with the student’s answer.

“I’m proud to say in this class we are a family,” Ryan said. “I’m momma bear. I tell them: My first job is to keep you safe, while my second job is to educate you. The big thing is that you feel safe with me; that you belong here and know I have your best interest at heart,” she said.

It’s that passion and concern that inspired her Citrus Springs Elementary peers to nominate her as the school’s Teacher of the Year — and the same holds true for her being named Teacher of the Year of the Citrus County School District on Jan. 19.

“I adore them, and every year I feel I’m never going to like my next class as much as I do this one — and I always do.”

The potential for student success drives Ryan’s passion.

At each table in her classroom, students sit in small groups. Sticky notes with supportive messages such as “You are the best” can be seen scattered around the room. At the heart of it, Ryan wants her students to gain a lifelong love of learning while seeing every day as a day to do something good.

“I am in my sixth year, and I love my job and the district,” Ryan said. “I’m a single mom of two girls, age 16 and 13, both in Lecanto High School, and I didn’t always know I would teach. I worked in business until I had my daughter in New York, then I started volunteering at Forest Ridge (Elementary School) for my daughter’s kindergarten class; became active in the PTO, and realized I would love doing this every day.”

With advice from a teacher, she went through the Alternative Education Program at the College of Central Florida in Ocala while simultaneously working as a teacher’s aide at Forest Ridge Elementary.

“Since I’ve been with the district, everyone has been helpful, wanting to make everyone better,” Ryan said. “I am a hard worker, and I hope that shows my daughters to see, despite obstacles, you can do anything. I did overcome quite a bit; the road has not been easy for me, but I made it.”

Going into the school day, she enters her classroom with a positive outlook and the utmost respect for learning.

“I love teaching because I know I’m changing lives every day,” she said. “There is quote hanging on my wall: ‘I create the climate in my classroom,’ and I wholeheartedly believe that. If I’m ready to learn, wanting to learn, wanting to be a good person, that radiates to the kids. I treat them the way I would like them to treat each other, and everyone else in their lives.

“I teach them life skills, about being a good person and how words can have a negative impact. And everyone is equal in this class. I don’t care who started here or there, it is about who is moving up.”

Her classroom is calm, with children showing respect toward one another; children even realizing a mistake and quickly apologizing.

She feels her classroom is where learning can be fun and interactive, but each day is a day to learn something — be it strictly academic or a life lesson.

“Everywhere I go I look for ways of bringing new and exciting ideas to the class,” Ryan said. “I struggled as a learner when I was little. I had a temporary hearing loss affecting my speech. When it rolled over into reading, I was not proficient, so I was getting extra help. I tell the kids all of this because I was there, I get it, and know what it feels like — and the kids get it. No one ever makes fun of anyone, even if it is the most-off-the-wall answer.”

Ryan said students use hand motions to help other students when they’re struggling with a question because it is less intimidating than raising a hand.

“When you have that atmosphere that we can make mistakes, and we are going to learn from our mistakes and grow, they help each other. I’m not here to teach you to pass the third-grade test; I’m here to teach you to be a lifelong learner. That’s my goal.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Julie Gorham at 352-563-3236 or jgorham@chronicleonline.com.

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