November 9, 2012

‘She’s the best teacher I’ve worked with in 40 years’

By Christopher Smith

— Being named Murray County Schools’ teacher of the year is “the highlight of a 15-year career,” said Coker Elementary reading teacher Jennifer Warnack, whose love for education started early in her life.

Warnack is now nominated for state teacher of the year. She found her passion for teaching when she played school as a child. She was never the student; always the teacher.

“There was a short year in high school where I looked at other options, but I knew teaching was what I was meant to do,” Warnack said. “I come from a family of teachers. My mother (Joy Carrier) was a teacher, and my dad (Jim Carrier) was also a teacher, but more than that I knew teaching was something I wanted to do and be good at.”

Warnack wrote an 18-page essay on the importance of teacher-student relationships in preparing kids for middle school as part of the nomination process.

“I think teaching is about letting someone know you care about them academically, emotionally and developmentally,” Warnack said. “The educational rigor is important, too, but you can’t expect kids to care if you don’t care. If a child is confident and successful, they can transition between grades easier, and that comes from the relationship they have with their teacher. They remember the relationship, not the test scores.”

Sharon Davis, sixth-grade English teacher, said Warnack’s dedication to building relationships has made her “the best teacher I’ve worked with in 40 years of education.”

“We’ve taught together for a long time,” Davis said. “Jennifer teaches sixth-graders how to read. She knows students have to do well in reading to do well in every other class. If her kids score high here, they score high in my class and other classes. I’ve never seen her kids’ score below 90 percent.”

Not every kid scores well, Warnack said.

“One of the things that always bothered me in my early career was the 10 percent of kids that did not pass,” she said. “I can picture kids from 10 years ago that didn’t pass and I’ll see them out and about. I wonder if there’s something I could have done differently for them. I decided I had to close that gap by trying different instructions and treating kids like individuals.”

Warnack said investing in struggling students has reduced the numbers of failed tests.

“She doesn’t just make things easier on students,” Davis said. “She makes everything easier for teachers, too. If we’re the wheel, she’s the cog. She’s like our mini-principal. She’s very smart and very on top of it. She plans schedules, the placement of kids in each class — all on top of teaching. She comes in early, leaves late, is here on the weekends and even works some days in the summer.”

Despite that busy schedule, Warnack has pursued a number of degrees including a bachelor of middle grade education from Kennesaw State University, a master of middle grade education from the University of West Georgia and a specialist degree and doctorate in educational leadership form Argosy University in Atlanta.

She said she has also found time to raise a family with her “high school sweetheart” Jarred who supported her through her education. Her daughter Emma, 6, and son Ethan, 10, both attend Coker Elementary. Ethan will be taught by Warnack next year.

“I’m really looking forward to having Ethan in my class,” Warnack said. “It’s going to be another learning experience. My motto is ‘My children come first’ and I believe this job has allowed me to do that very easily. I’m dedicated to this school because my children are here. It’s not that I wouldn’t be if they weren’t, but I want to see good things happen here for them.”

Warnack was pregnant with Ethan when she was named Murray County Teacher of the Year in 2002 at Gladden Middle School, where she met Davis. The two stayed together when they transferred to Coker Elementary in 2007 when the school needed more teachers.

It’s the “team” that makes her successful, Warnack said.

“Every year since I’ve started teaching, I have been on great teams of great teachers,” she said. “I don’t think I could be as successful as I’ve been without a great team. It seems like you surrounded yourself with good people and good things happen.”