A crowd of community leaders at this year’s Celebration of Excellence on Thursday, March 9, burst out into applause as Forsyth County Schools and the Chamber of Commerce announced the 2023 Teacher of the Year, Morgan O’Leary.
The first-grade teacher from New Hope Elementary took to the stage at the Forsyth Conference Center with a huge smile on her face and addressed the crowd.
“I really didn’t think I was going to have to give this speech,” O’Leary said, laughing. “What an absolute honor and privilege.”
She thanked Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden for his dedication to making the school system one of the greatest in Georgia and her New Hope Elementary family. O’Leary joined New Hope’s inaugural staff this year, moving over with Principal Laura Webb from where she started her career nearly eight years ago at Big Creek Elementary.
O’Leary also thanked Webb for the support she has shown to her since the day Webb started as an assistant principal at Big Creek in 2015.
“You’re a fierce leader who puts kids first in everything that you do,” O’Leary said. “You have pushed me to be the best teacher that I can be, but more importantly, you have taught me to be present, to have fun and to always listen with intention.”
But most importantly, O’Leary said she wanted to thank her students.
“To my kids, my sweet first graders and every child that has ever been one of mine, I’m forever grateful to have been chosen to be your teacher,” O’Leary said. “You mean more to me than you’ll ever know, and what a gift it is that I get to spend my days with you. You are kind, funny, curious, smart, incredible humans. Never forget that your voice matters in this world. You can and you will do hard things, and I’ll forever be cheering you on.”
Speaking to the teachers in the room, O’Leary explained why it can be easy to forget why they chose to teach. She acknowledged that the time spent taking in outside feedback, going over lesson plans and spending long ours in the classroom makes it hard work.
That’s why she said there is a quote she looks at and remembers every day: “Remember why you started.”
She said it reminds her to remember what really matters about the job she does every day — her students.
Because of this, O’Leary thought it was only right to share what some of her former students remember about their time with her in first grade.
One student, now a fourth grader, remembered how exited he was each day to go to school. Another, now in second, held on to one memory of his class cheering him on when he got his 20th gold star for his good behavior and having a dance party.
Other now older students remembered O’Leary always being there for them while they were struggling with math or reading. Some recalled how the teacher spent time outside of school to watch their soccer game or get ice cream together.
“We are so hard on ourselves as teachers,” O’Leary said. “There are many days we go home defeated and lose sleep over our kids. But listen to what our kids remember. Relationships, feeling loved, going to their soccer games, meeting up for ice cream, mindfulness, dance parties. Because my kids felt safe, loved and included, they were able to do math or read even though it may have been hard.
“I hope that none of us never forget that, no matter how hard it gets, we not only have one of the most difficult jobs in the world but also one of the most powerful,” she continued. “We’re changing the world and how lucky are we.”
After finishing her speech, Andean Chevrolet presented O’Leary with a lease for a new Chevy Equinox, which was parked in the room next to the stage.
O’Leary wasn’t the only one recognized at this year’s Celebration of Excellence, an annual event serving to honor the community’s commitment to education.
FCS Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden kicked off the afternoon by honoring the school system’s Partners in Education before last year’s Teacher of the Year, Michael Cheek, read the names of the Teachers of the Year chosen at each school across the county.
The seven finalists for Teacher of the Year were honored with a short video describing the impact they have had on their schools. Each was called to the stage to receive their reward before the overall 2023 Teacher of the Year was announced.
Like past years, the district and chamber leaders also awarded businesses and community leaders who have had a direct impact on Forsyth County’s schools from outside their walls.
Presented by Georgia Power, the 2023 Mentor of the Year award went to Corey Milford, who has served as a mentor at Silver City Elementary since 2019.
Georgia United Credit Union presented the 2023 Friend of the School to both All For Lunch, an organization that paid off every students’ negative lunch balance last semester, and Burlington, which donated $5,000 to Chattahoochee Elementary after having its grand opening on Market Place Boulevard in November.
Bearden presented the 2023 Volunteer of the Year award to Dr. Saad Bhamla for his work mentoring biotech students at Lambert High School. Bhamla was not in attendance, but Lambert Principal Gary Davison accepted the award on his behalf.
Northside Hospital’s Paula Malmfeldt presented the 2023 Silver Program of the Year award to Altrusa for their work gathering donations for Otwell Middle School. Lynn Jackson, administrator of Northside Hospital Forsyth, presented the 2023 Gold Program of the year award to both RBM of Alpharetta and Vulcan Materials for their partnership with DeSana and Liberty Middle schools, respectively.
Forsyth County Fire Department was named as the winner of the 2023 Don Hendricks Partnership Award, the highest honor that a Partner in Education can receive.
The Hendricks family said the department has worked as an “ever-present” resource in the schools for the past several years, providing life-saving training to school nurses, working with Alliance Academy on its Healthcare and First Responders pathway and teaching fire safety to kids.
Bearden closed out the event Thursday by thanking the sponsors and all the Partners in Education who help to make Forsyth County Schools what it is today.
“I can’t think of any other school district that is more blessed than ours,” Bearden said. “Thank you for providing resources and support. Our school system is successful because of you.”