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Before the Georgia-Florida game, college football fans got to know one Vickery Creek Elementary teacher
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Vickery Creek Elementary School teacher Tamara Hales was recognized by the Southeastern Conference before the Georgia-Florida football game Oct. 27 for an essay written by one of her former students, Jenna Staiti, a University of Georgia women’s basketball player. - photo by Brian Paglia

Local high school basketball fans may know Jenna Staiti as perhaps the greatest talent to ever come out of Forsyth County. Staiti was a promising swimmer growing up, but her height prompted some to steer Staiti toward basketball going into high school. She blossomed at West Forsyth, eventually being named Miss Georgia Basketball in 2016 as the best girls player in the state. Staiti signed with the University of Maryland before transferring to Georgia.

Tamara Hales first knew Staiti as a shy, people-pleasing fourth-grader at Vickery Creek Elementary School who struggled to learn, particularly in math. Hales remembers division and multiplication giving Staiti the most trouble. The way Hales taught the concepts to the class didn’t seem to work for Staiti, so the two met before and after school searching for ways to help Staiti understand.

It was a year-long journey, but Staiti made progress. Hales remembers one review lesson where the class observed Staiti solve a division equation using a different technique, prompting them to ask Staiti about her method.

“People were looking at her to show them another way,” Hales said.

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Jenna Staiti (left) is a member of the University of Georgia’s women’s basketball team, but she still visits her former fourth-grade teacher at Vickery Creek Elementary, Tamara Hales, every year.

Staiti passed the CRCT that school year. The source of her academic struggles was later diagnosed as an auditory processing deficiency.

The whole experience left an impression on Staiti. When the Southeastern Conference asked its student-athletes to submit essays for its “Extra Yard for Teachers” initiative, Staiti knew she wanted to write about Hales.

The SEC selected Staiti’s essay for Georgia, which led to a feature about Hales that aired Oct. 27 on the SEC Network before the Georgia-Florida football game. In addition, Vickery Creek received a $10,000 grant from the SEC.

“The relationship that I have with Jenna, it’s one of those moments where you go, OK, I did do something right,” Hales said.

That year with Staiti left an impression on Hales, too. It was just her second year in teaching, and it couldn’t have been more different than the first. Hales grew up in Free Home in Cherokee County and knew she wanted to be a teacher at 6 years old. She went to Reinhardt College (now Reinhardt University). Vickery Creek was her only interview after graduation, and the school offered her the exact job she wanted: Fourth-grade.

“Everything seemed to flow and it was all great,” Hales said.

Hales’ second year was filled with challenges. Some students had behavior issues. One had an eating disorder. And there was Staiti’s learning struggles.

At times it left Hales despondent. In her final meeting that school year with Staiti’s mom, Hales remembers feeling like she had failed Jenna.

“I remember sitting in this meeting and being furious,” Hales said. “Mad that I didn’t do more.”

That perspective didn’t last long. Staiti’s mom continued to emphasize to Hales how significant an impact her efforts had made, and Staiti has returned to visit Hales at least once every year.

Hales now believes her experience with Staiti made her a better teacher. She was taught in college that every child learns differently, but it became real to Hales that year with Staiti.

“It doesn’t matter if what everybody else is doing works for everybody,” Hales said. “It’s what works for you.”

One of the indelible images for Hales from that year is the sullen expression of a frustrated child just wishing she could learn. Hales has a heightened radar for that look now. Any time she sees it, she tells that student the story of a shy fourth-grader who struggled to learn like everyone else but found a way.

“And then I tell them, ‘OK, now she’s at the University of Georgia, and we all know about the University of Georgia and how good of a school it is,’” Hales said. “Then they aggravate me because I’m a (Georgia) Tech fan.”