On a chilly evening in November of 2019 Rebecca Carlisle, a 10th grade AP World History teacher at North Gwinnett, recalls the energy thrumming through the ballroom of the Infinite Energy Center, where fellow teachers, principals, district leaders across Gwinnett convened.
Amid the tasteful settings, a projection screen announced the celebratory event of the evening: Gwinnett County’s annual Teacher of the Year banquet. As the ceremony kicked off, Carlisle and her fellow teachers took to the stage accepting tokens of recognition for being nominated Teacher of The Year (TOTY) at their respective schools—that evening, only one amongst them would be honored with that title at the county level.
Carlisle watched as the nominees dwindled from several to six, then three. Finally, drawing suspenseful pause, the host announced the winner. Carlisle listened in disbelief as the name echoed off the walls around her. It was hers—she’d won!
“I truly wasn’t prepared for it at all,” says Carlisle, humility and appreciation lacing her words. “The more teachers I meet across the district and the more I hear of the innovative things they’re doing, the more my gratitude and humility grows for the incredible honor it is to represent them.”
Kids…then more kids
A teacher for over ten years now, Carlisle’s wakes up to her alarm blaring and climbs out of bed as her brain shifts into gear, churning out a to-do list. And then the morning frenzy ensues. She wakes her two- and five-year-olds, feeding, dressing and getting them packed up for the day while simultaneously doing the same for herself.
“My husband is a firefighter,” says Carlisle. “So usually it’s me getting the kids up and ready. I drop my two-year-old at daycare and my five-year-old just started kindergarten.”
Once she’s temporarily discharged of parental duties from her own kids, Carlisle strolls into her classroom to assume the responsibility of approximately 60 others, whom she’ll spend the school year motivating, enlightening and encouraging.
An intent purpose
Carlisle states her purpose as an educator is best encapsulated in a quote by CS Lewis: “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”
Elaborating, she states, “As an educator, I believe it is my calling to help students dig ditches through the dry, arid mindsets cultivated by the monotony of the memorize- and-recite approach and let them instead experience learning in a way that’s akin to the refreshment life-giving water delivers, so they can become equipped with life-skills, like critical thinking.”
In this vein, Carlisle doesn’t condone her students to simply accept or be handed an answer—instead she encourages them to dig deep, unveiling answers through their own mechanisms, findings, thoughts and creativity. She admits the process of discovery can sometimes be long, even arduous. “But it’s a worthwhile process to help students realize they are full of promise and valued perspective. In that sense, perhaps when we irrigate the deserts, the jungles become clearer,” she says.
Beyond working to ignite a spark for learning, Carlisle believes it her responsibility to relate to, engage with, and respect students as individuals. “History in general, is typically not students’ favorite subject,” she laughs. “And AP is challenging. I want my class to be one that is safe for my students to “fail forward.” Carlisle demonstrates her commitment to catch students if they fall—and bring them out stronger on the other end—by holding one-on-one motivational talks and keeping the energy pumping and spirits high through dancing and chanting class mantras.
“Students act like they don’t love it,” she says, “But secretly they do! Tenth grade can be hard—it was for me—so I really try to get them to loosen up and build a solid classroom community.”
Keeping focus amid a pandemic
While most teachers pepper their room with posters and books, Carlisle’s might feel like a quasi-desert: cacti are an ordinary part of the classroom landscape. But, like everything else, there’s a good reason for the presence of these spikey, unconventional classroom fixtures.
“Since about August 2019,” she says, “The theme for my students has been to ‘stick it out when things get prickly.’ This means having a growth mindset and working through challenges as they come.”
Little did she know how befitting that statement would be come 2020. “This pandemic has highlighted what’s important and what’s not. All in all, being the GCPS Teacher of the Year during a pandemic has given me clear focus in how I can use my time.”
Since the pandemic, she’s helped launch the first-ever virtual GCPS TOTY Think Tank session to discuss support strategies for parents and students during the pandemic, worked with other TOTYs to implement a county-wide PPE drive, and partnered with government officials to brainstorm solutions to challenges presented by digital learning.
“My heart’s desire,” she says, “Is to help us all move forward together so that on the other side of this, the story we tell is one that our kids and history can be proud of.”
Hard work pays off
Alongside her numerous accomplishments, Carlisle has yet another reason to celebrate; as per tradition, every Gwinnett Teacher of the Year receives a special prize from Hayes-Chrysler of Lawrenceville: a car for the year!
“I’m so thankful for the people at Hayes-Chrysler in Lawrenceville! Growing up in Grayson, my family and I have always appreciated them and the ways they invest in our county.”
With a new ride, earnest community endeavors and a revered title to her name, Carlisle’s accomplishments may shine bright, but her humility shines brighter. “I am very aware that I am nothing without Jesus, his work in me, and the incredible mentors and colleagues I have had all along my career,” she says. “It’s because of them that I am the person and teacher I am today.”
The Hayes Family Dealerships place their support behind Gwinnett’s extraordinary teachers, year after year
If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that few things hold true significance in life. Hayes Family Dealerships believes that fostering an environment that promotes healthy, intelligent young minds is one of them.
Every year, we place our gratitude behind Gwinnett’s teachers, the individuals who spend significant time honing our children’s knowledge, to show them just how much we appreciate their relentless, diligent efforts to cultivate intelligent, sharp, thoughtful minds. As a small token of our appreciation to Gwinnett’s annual Teacher of the Year nominee, we provide the winner a car for a year.
This year, we extend our heartiest congratulations to Rebecca Carlisle for acquiring that title. Rebecca shares in our belief that children should be nurtured emotionally, physically and mentally. Her efforts in positively impacting students extend beyond teaching—particularly during the pandemic as students and parents face unprecedented challenges—through drives, forums and other initiatives.
Rebecca’s passion for kids is evident through this statement: “Schools are the only places where the strength and struggle of our society meets together in a classroom for an educator to see the unique promise each child has and masterfully draw it out so that he or she can walk in their own purpose.”
The Hayes Family Dealerships thank you, Rebecca—and all the remarkable teachers our community is fortunate to have—for your compassion, care and love for our children. We hope you enjoy our token of appreciation to you as an educator who strives to deliver nothing less than excellence.
Listen to Rebecca’s Full Episode on The Gwinnett Podcast!