At its April 4 meeting, the Rotary Club of Knoxville honored Susan Parker, a fourth-grade teacher at South Knoxville Elementary School, and Skikila Smith, a ninth-grade English and advanced creative writing teacher at Austin-East Magnet High School, as its 2023 Outstanding Knox County Teachers of the Year.

Each winner received a $500 check, along with a $250 gift certificate to A&W Office Supply. “The Rotary Club of Knoxville is proud to honor dedicated educators like Susan Parker and Skikila Smith,” said Lynne Fugate, chair of the club’s Teacher Recognition Committee. “Each year our committee is inspired by the nominees we review. Our winners truly make a difference for our children every day.”

“Mrs. Parker came to us with 24 years of experience,” wrote Principal Tanna Nicely of South Knoxville Elementary School in her nomination letter. “As she is often heard saying, ‘The classroom is where my heart is and where I feel I make the largest impact.’ Mrs. Parker’s entire career has been served in Title1 schools like Sarah Moore Greene, Pond Gap, and now SKE, where children with the largest needs are found and where she feels called to serve.”

In her remarks, Parker said several factors are important for a successful class, including a loving environment, genuinely caring for the students, structure, and expectations. “They all should know that they are expected to do their best,” she said, “.  And part of my job is to help them believe that they can do their best. Education is a game changer for many of my students. Changing their mindset to expect something from themselves and their education is important.”

On a lighter note, Parker said that, after she finished giving what she thought was a particularly good, well thought out and planned lesson, she asked her students if they had any questions. One little girl raised her hand and her question was, “Where do you get all of your scarves?”

“When you enter Ms. Skikila Smith’s English I or Advanced Creative Writing classroom,” wrote Austin-East Magnet High School Executive Principal Tammi Campbell in her nomination, “you will always witness our students highly engaged with the content, interacting through rich discussion, expressing powerful ideas through their writing,and authentically owning and excelling in their learning experiences. Mrs. ‘Ski,’ as she is affectionately called by staff and students, leads and models for our students and school community through high expectations, unwavering love and compassion, and a relentless drive and pursuit to continuously improve and achieve.”

Miss Ski (pronounced ‘sky’) began her remarks by pointing out that her path to teaching was nontraditional. “I have been teaching only five years,” she said. “I grew up in the Lonsdale community in a difficult situation. I became a single mom of three children at age 21. I went back to college when my daughters were adults and my youngest son was a freshman in high school.” All of them encouraged her to become a teacher. She went to the University of Tennessee and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She completed her student teaching at Austin-East and has been on the faculty there ever since.

Miss Ski said that her students are always on her mind. For many of them, education is a bridge to a better future.  She pointed out impediments to education that many of her students face, including hunger, housing, other vital necessities and safety concerns.

Miss Ski described her own teaching approach as sometimes unorthodox and noted that she appreciated the flexibility afforded her by Principal Campbell. For example, Miss Ski’s nomination letter noted that desks are permanently arranged in a circle in her classroom, encouraging students to participate as equals with each other and with the principal.

Photo: (l-r) Austin-East Executive Principal Tammi Campbell, Outstanding Teacher of the Year winners Skikila Smith and Susan Parker, and South Knox Elementary Principal Tanna Nicely