Schools celebrate Teachers of the Year

Mossy Creek Elementary School

Debbie Pruitt

Debbie Pruitt loves teaching kindergarten at Mossy Creek Elementary.

“I wanted to effect change and I wanted to teach little ones to become literate,” she said. “My little ones can read and write when they leave. I wanted to make a difference.”

Pruitt, 61, was selected as the 2018-2019 Teacher of the Year for MCES. She has been a teacher for 15 years, all of which have been in White County. She spent seven years at Mt. Yonah Elementary School and has been at MCES for eight years.

She has taught kindergarten her entire career because she loves that age.

“They’re such little sponges. They absorb, they apply what they learn, and when the light bulb comes on, when they do become literate and understand how the English language works, it’s euphoria. It’s awesome.”

Building relationships with the students is what Pruitt said she enjoys most about teaching. She also enjoys teaching them how to have empathy and compassion for their classmates.

Because they’re so young, when it comes to keeping the students encouraged and focused, she said it’s about the relationship.

“I see my students as individuals with little minds of their own,” Pruitt said. “They’re entitled to their opinions, emotions, concerns and their preferences. I strive to create an experience that sparks their natural curiosity, inspire their efforts and just endow them with the joy of learning and building confidence.”

She said she was surprised and honored to be named Teacher of the Year because she wasn’t expecting it. In fact, this was the second time for Pruitt being Teacher of the Year. She was the 2009-2010 MYES Teacher of the Year. 

Pruitt graduated from WCHS in 1975. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in early childhood education in 2004, a Masters of Arts with a reading concentration in 2007, and an Education Specialist Ed.S in curriculum and instruction in 2009. All of her degrees are from Piedmont College. She and her husband Chuck have three kids.


Mount Yonah Elementary School

Brandon Nonnemaker

Brandon Nonnemaker has been selected as the 2018-2019 Mount Yonah Elementary School Teacher of the Year.

Nonnemaker, 33, has been a teacher for 11 years in White County. He is currently in his second year at MYES. He started teaching at White County Middle School, Mossy Creek Elementary School, White County High School and is currently the music teacher at MYES.

As for how it felt when he found out he won teacher of the year, he said it was surprising and humbling.

“I love the kids, and anywhere I’ve been, I’ve always been very involved in the school, even outside the content area I’m teaching because I think it’s important, school culture is important,” he said.

At MYES Nonnemaker said he started a choir program for 3rd through 5th graders in the fall, and in the spring he offers a musical theatre program for 4th and 5th graders. He is also the team leader for piloting the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program at the school.

As for what he enjoys most about teaching, Nonnemaker said it’s relationships. Because he teaches music he is able to watch students grow all the way from kindergarten to fifth grade.

Nonnemaker said he has always wanted to be a teacher because he can make a difference.

“What we do is not just provide students with information or with skills, but we’re growing young citizens,” he said. “I think that’s important.”

One of his most memorable moments from teaching at MYES involves the musical theatre program.

“With starting the musical theatre program, I never would’ve imagined how interested students would be, and not just to be a part of it, but we were able to perform for the entire school,” he said. “That experience was really powerful. Our students performing for their peers and the support that they got.”

Nonnemaker graduated from WCHS in 2003, attended Piedmont College for his bachelor’s degree in music and master’s degree in music education, and graduated from UGA with his doctorate in music education. He and his wife Mallory have two sons.

Tesnatee Gap Elementary School

Kelley Kostulakos

When Kelley Kostulakos was announced as the 2018-2019 Teacher of the Year for Tesnatee Gap Elementary School, it was actually the second time she has received this honor.

Kostulakos, 33, has also previously been named Teacher of the Year in Hall County. But this is the first time receiving the honor in White County for the second-grade teacher. Because of this, she was shocked when she found out the news earlier this year.

“I was surprised and I was shocked,” she said. “I felt very honored that my faculty members chose me. It was nice.”

She has been a teacher for 12 years and at TGAP since it opened three years ago. She has spent four years with the White County School System, with one at Jack P. Nix Elementary School before coming to TGAP. She taught in Hall County before coming to WCSS.

Kostulakos said she always wanted to be a teacher and loves working with children and seeing them get excited about learning. She also loves the bonds that are made with them.

As for what she believes has been her greatest accomplishment as a teacher, she said it’s helping kids, especially if they’re in a difficult situation.

“Helping them realize they’re in a safe environment and making it to where they know this is a retreat for them and they can come here and be safe and learn,” she said. “I’m their school mom while they’re here, and I protect them while they’re here.”

When teaching she helps them make connections to the real world and to see the relevance in what they are doing.

Kostulakos graduated from White County High School in 2003, and from the University of North Georgia with a bachelors in 2007 and a masters in 2011. She has a degree in early childhood and special education, a reading endorsement and a gifted endorsement. She and her husband Jon have two children. Her husband is a third-grade teacher at TGAP and has also won Teacher of the Year in Hall County.


Jack P. Nix Elementary School

Katie DeFoor

Katie DeFoor was overwhelmed when she found out she was the 2018-2019 Teacher of the Year for Jack P. Nix Elementary School.

“I was a little overwhelmed, but very humbled because there are many contenders in this school who could’ve been in the same spot and are deserving of the role,” DeFoor said.

DeFoor, 39, teaches art at Jack P. Nix Elementary School. She has been a teacher for 14 years, eight of which have been in White County. She taught at White County Middle School for eight years and has been at JPN for two years. She also taught for four years in Dawson County.

She is a third-generation teacher in her family and decided on art because she loves being hands-on.

“I love creating opportunities for my students to feel successful,” she said. “I feel like working in the art room I can provide an opportunity where if they’re struggling in math, reading or writing, they can come in here and create something they own and are proud of, regardless of it’s a Picasso or not. They can get out there and show it off and feel good about it.”

DeFoor said she enjoys when she can see that a child is proud of what they created.

“I enjoy getting to know my students, the one-on-one relationships and getting to interact with them over the years,” she said.

While at JPN, DeFoor started the art club this school year and it already has 40 members. The purpose of the club is to create a warm and inviting environment in the school and community, she said.

DeFoor graduated from the University of North Georgia in 2001 with a bachelors of art in art education. She has four kids with her husband, Jeff.


White Count Middle School

Meg Dickerson

Meg Dickerson was surprised to see the Chick-Fil-A cow, along with her family members, walk into her classroom earlier this year.

She was even more surprised when Principal Kristi Gerrells, who accompanied the cow, announced she was the 2018-2019 White County Middle School Teacher of the Year.

“Panic, more panic, and then when it finally got through to me, it was very humbling,” she said. “It was something I had never expected to happen and when they busted in that Friday I was very taken aback, and then once I processed I was emotional, but very humbled by the whole experience.”

“It was a big surprise coming in on a Friday afternoon,” she said. “The kids were excited. With me doing agriculture, I help kids with dairy projects, so they brought in the Chick-Fil-A cow because they couldn’t get a real one coming in.”

Dickerson, 37, is the agriculture teacher at White County Middle School, a position she has held for the past 14 years. In fact, she’s been at WCMS her entire teaching career and plans on staying until she can retire. As for the most memorable part of her job, she said it’s when the kids make a connection with the topic.

“I really enjoy when I get kids that may not have a background in agriculture that’s really strong, when we find something that clicks with them,” Dickerson said. “It could be the natural resources end with identifying different wildlife animals or trees or the livestock end. We hatch chickens, we have a chicken coop out back, we talk about cattle and goats, we have kids that show all these different livestock species. Finding something that’s their thing, even if it’s just for the middle school years, I think it’s one of the most rewarding parts of my job.

Dickerson, who is from Westminster, S.C., graduated from West-Oak High School in 1999, from Clemson in 2005 with a degree in Agriculture Education, and a Masters of Agricultural and Environmental Education from UGA in 2018. She has a 5-year old Boston Terrier named Otis.


White County High School

Amanda Keener

Amanda Keener is the White County High School 2018-2019 Teacher of the Year.

Keener, 32, is the agriculture teacher at WCHS. She has been teaching for eight years, all in White County. When she found out she was Teacher of the Year, she said she was surprised. She was also presented with a plant because she’s a plant lover.

“It was a very humbling moment,” she said. “Sometimes as a teacher you’re faced with these situations that you’re super stressed out about them and (wonder) why is this happening to me. I was kind of in one of those moments and down in the dumps and I didn’t know if I was supposed to be doing this. Then a few days later I was announced as teacher of the year. It was a humbling moment that made me realize this is what I’m suppose to be doing.”

For Keener, developing and building relationships with the students is one thing she enjoys most about teaching. With agriculture classes, it’s structured, but there’s also a lot of hands-on learning. She also works on the mentality that they’re family.

“This is a place where a lot of kids who don’t fit in have a place to fit in,” she said. “I try to make it feel very welcoming and very comforting for them. I do things, like we have motivational Mondays and we listen to their favorite songs on Thursdays and they have to explain them to me.”

She graduated from Monroe High School in 2005. She graduated from UGA in 2009 with a bachelors degree in agriculture education and masters in 2010.

Keener is married to Dustin Keener, who is another agriculture teacher at WCHS. They have two kids.

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