Anna McEntire’s passion overflows as she talks about teaching, and it’s no wonder she was named the Shelby County School’s Middle School Teacher of the Year. “I remember feeling insecure and shy in middle school, and it’s neat to see (my students) become more confident,” she says. “I tell my kids their voice matters.” Her story starts growing up in Oak Mountain schools (she graduated from OMHS in 2006) and has now taken her to Helena Middle School with a faculty she considers “one huge close-knit family.” We chatted with her about what she’s missed most in quarantine and how her own school years inspire what she does today.

You grew up in Shelby County and taught in Tuscaloosa and Florida before coming back. What’s been good about being back in the area?

When I moved back, I knew I wanted to teach in the Shelby County Schools system. I had a great experience myself and felt very prepared for college at Auburn, and I love how they get kids prepared and how professional and nurturing they are. When I started at Helena Middle School, I really felt like I was home. The unwavering support they give teachers helped with that transition, and they outpour love and support and resources.

How did you decide to become a teacher?

I remember watching my own ninth-grade biology teacher and how alive she made the subject matter and how she celebrated us and built us up. You felt really seen in her classroom. In that moment, I thought, “That is exactly what I want to do for kids who are my age.” I can remember the teachers who celebrated me and taught me I was smart, capable and worthy, and I wanted to help other kids feel  special and seen like I was.

What do you love about teaching?

What I love about teaching middle school is you get to play a small role in those kids’ lives when they are trying to figure out who they want to be and what sparks their curiosity the most. With life sciences, you can see what’s happening to plants outside, you can see your skin and your chill bumps, you can see parts of the cell in a microscope. For middle schoolers, if they can relate any content to their daily lives it helps them connect with it. I love teaching genetics and to open their eyes to how they got their eye color and solve those mysteries. They leave you feeling smarter than when they came into your classroom. There’s nothing sweeter than seeing a kid succeed in something and to know I helped with that. I love seeing them become curious and ask questions.

What roles have dance and dance team played in your life?

These girls at Helena grew up taking dance classes and dance is their life, and that’s the world I remember. Dance brought me out of my shell in middle school, and it was defining for my young adult life. It gave me a confidence I had never known before, and I haven’t stopped talking about it since. It helped me see I am good at something.  I remember having a hard day at school, and once I left practice the day had turned around. My favorite thing about coaching is mentoring and helping these girls. I love building them up so they are confident to make right decisions, and I set high expectations for my students to be leaders in all their interactions. It’s hard in middle school.

What were some highs and lows of teaching in quarantine?

The main challenge is the lack of connectedness and being able to tell if a concept is truly mastered. There’s a lot to telling if a student is getting what you are teaching with their body language and nonverbal clues. On the positive side, I saw the kids really liked the flexible scheduling and rose to that challenge with independence. They are able to problem solve and troubleshoot issues on their own. Many of my students would want to get their assignments completed right when they were posted so they could free up their time for the rest of the week, and they saw that it is valuable to think about the future. It’s very mature. We also learned about resources to make our classrooms more engaging.