By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
As a teacher of intellectually gifted second-graders, Susan Powell knows she has to bring her “A-game” to work every day in order to keep her students challenged. She has apparently succeeded in doing that.
Powell, daughter of Murray and Jean Johnson, was recently named Teacher of the Year for Mississippi’s largest school district. She teaches at Pleasant Hill Elementary School in Hernando, part of the 30,000-student, 41-school DeSoto County School District.
According to the cover article in February issue of DeSoto Digest Newsletter, the district’s top teacher encourages her young charges to collaborate with one another — using their creativity, curiosity and imagination — to conduct service projects, solve logic puzzles and complete other science, engineering, technology and math activities, including robotics and coding, gardening and world studies.
According to PHES Principal Bettye Magee, Powell — who also taught several years at Rachel Patterson Elementary School — also goes beyond the classroom in trying to uphold the school’s high standards.
“Mrs. Powell never hesitates when there is a job to be done,” Magee said. “She chairs the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports Team at our school, sponsors the chess team and organizes the Veterans Day program each year. She is an exceptional teacher.”
Powell’s paternal grandmother, Bertha Owens Johnson, taught for nearly four decades in the Conecuh County School System. Murray Johnson said his eldest child seemed determined to become an accountant, although he had tried to nudge her and her sister, Sandy Johnson Resa, toward the education field.
Susan and Sandy, who retired after a lengthy career as a principal in the Auburn school system and now works at Auburn University on helping secure grants for new education programs, followed that advice. Their brother, Carl, went into law and is now an attorney in northern Georgia.
“When they were growing up, teaching was the most secure thing a woman could do, aside from marrying somebody with money, so that was what I encouraged them to do,” Murray Johnson said. “Jean and I are very proud of both our daughters and our son.”
According to the newsletter article, Powell’s classroom is “highly engaging, project-based and student-centered.” She uses small, self-directed groups that work in centers to emphasize critical thinking, creativity and success skills to her students as they work on goal-driven projects.
At one of the centers, or stations, her second-graders use a spherical robot that can be manipulated by a smartphone or tablet. The coding activity that directs the robot features comprehension of embedded math skills.
“My goal is to help students learn to be problem solvers,” Powell said, who seems to be one of the few who were actually surprised that she was named the district’s top teacher. “I am very humbled and very surprised to be named DCS Teacher of the Year. So many outstanding teachers in our district deserve this honor.”
Another feature of Powell’s classroom is the production-like projects her students tackle. The youngsters learn to operate one of four sewing machines and make “taggies,” small blankets with tabs that stimulate the senses. Her class has shipped the taggies to Native Americans in Arizona and to orphanages in South America, China and Africa.
Powell earned regional, national and international acclaim when she started Unknown Child Foundation. The foundation evolved from the “Pennies Project” Powell and another teacher launched in 2009, when Powell taught seventh-grade classes at Horn Lake Middle School.
The effort, aimed at providing students with a better understanding of the suffering that took place during the Holocaust, resulted in the collection — over more than three years and at two schools — of 1.5 million pennies, one for each child who perished during Adolph Hitler program that eventually resulted in the death of more than six million European Jews.
Diane McNeil, president of Unknown Child Foundation, said UCF’s formation was further proof of Powell’s dedication to a cause.
“Susan started this journey and never let go,” McNeil said. “It took 3.5 years to collect four tons of pennies, with many lessons taught and learned. Susan started this project, and this Mississippi teacher is the face behind the education component.”
The pennies will be used to create a permanent Children’s Holocaust Memorial, added McNeil, who said Powell’s effort would last beyond the normal tenure of an educator.
“Susan is a teacher inside and outside the classroom,” said the Foundation president. “Her classroom is now the world. She will be teaching years beyond what we can imagine.”
Powell, who was a finalist for Mississippi Teacher of the Year, agreed that her love for teaching has not waned during her career.
“I am humbled and very surprised,” she said in an interview with the DeSoto Times-Tribune. “I adore the interaction with the students as well as their families. I have to say, I am happy and excited to come to work every day.”