‘A natural’ from day one
Appeal Staff Writer
The student body, nearly 600 strong, at Empire Elementary sat at attention Monday afternoon when they learned the unfamiliar face who stood before them was that of the superintendent of Nevada Schools, Dr. Keith Rheault.
“How many of you can count to 22,000?” he asked as if rhetorically.
Still, more than 500 hands shot up at once, and to the sight, Rheault smiled.
“Well, that’s quite a lot of you then,” he said. “That’s good -because in Nevada, we have 22,000 teachers, and guess what?”
The sound of a collective expectant inhale filled the room.
“…One of yours is teacher of the year – the one,” Rheault said. “Leann Morris, come on up here.”
The curtains to the school’s main stage were drawn to reveal a “This is Your Life”-like picture for Morris.
From Illinois, Wyoming and Arizona they came; friends and family to celebrate the most cherished moment in a teacher’s career. Tear-filled, Morris stepped to the stage, collected a fall bouquet and started an impromptu receiving line of hugs, kisses and more tears.
Declining at first the opportunity to speak to the student body, Morris instead deferred to principal Evelyn Allred, who announced a host of speakers lauding Morris’ achievements since she came to work for the school district in 1990.
Nevada Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell, who taught in Carson for more than 20 years and was herself the state’s teacher of the year in 1998, said there was no more deserving a teacher in the state than Morris.
When Morris did gather herself and take center stage, she spent her time in the spotlight not talking about her own accomplishments, but introducing her supporters on-stage. Everyone from her childhood best friend to her teaching colleagues was given credit for the award.
“Everybody that’s very important to me is here,” she said. “The only person that’s not is my dad. And I know that somewhere he’s watching.”
Morris will now go up against the teachers of the year from 49 other states and is eligible to be named national teacher of the year early next year.
But for now, she said she will “enjoy this day (and) continue to enjoy her students.”
Morris has been the technology teacher at Empire Elementary for the past six years. Prior to that she was the technology teacher at Carson High School and Fritsch Elementary School.
She spent the first four years of her career teaching first grade at Mark Twain and Corbett elementary schools.
Earlier this month, Morris, who had yet to learn of the award, said that her most recent stint at Empire has been the “most rewarding of her career.”
Empire is largely populated by Latino students and working with them, teaching them computers has “been a great privilege,” she said.
“It’s something you take one day at a time,” Morris said. “The language barrier isn’t that great. The kids help me for translation.
“I basically help them learn the skills they need. In turn, they teach me a lot too.”
Allred, who is midway through her first year as principal of Empire andhas been teaching in the state for more than 15 years, said Morris’ work ethic goes “far beyond the classroom.”
“Don’t let her modesty fool you,” she said. “She manages a $150,000 grant. (Empire) has the best technology in the school district-because of her diligence and tenacity – she’s funny and fun and the kids at this school are technologically advanced from her teaching.
“I’ve never seen her say a negative thing about anyone or a harsh word toward a child; if they make a mistake she never says, ‘no- that’s wrong’, she is an example to follow – all of the time. She definitely deserves this award.”
A retired elementary school teacher was admiring Morris from afar in the audience Monday at Empire. Now a substitute, she beamed as Morris called to her from the stage.
“Katie Pollock was one of the first teachers I met in the district,” Morris said. “I saw her today in the teacher’s lounge and it’s people like her who made a difference in my career.”
Pollock shrugged and recalled meeting the woman receiving that state’s top honors for the first time:
“Parents were concerned that she was a first-year teacher,” Pollock said, smiling. “I knew right away she was something special – I said ‘Don’t worry, she’s a natural.’ I guess I was right.”