Michael Cheek struggled with math growing up, receiving failing grades on tests and assignments he couldn’t wrap his head around. He even wrote in a journal entry during his senior year of high school saying he hated math and would never become a math teacher.
Looking at that journal entry now, Cheek can’t help but smile. Today, he’s a proud math teacher and basketball coach at Vickery Creek Middle School.
And he said he owes much of his teaching success to his high school math teacher, Ms. Smothers.
“Now, how can my high school math teacher, whose class was most likely the toughest, be the teacher that most connected with me and has most shaped my classroom more than any other teacher?” Cheek asked.
He said it was because she showed up to every one of his basketball games. She taught him to dance, to cover his mouth when he yawned, to speak correctly and to have integrity. She taught him life lessons he still leans on today.
“She was willing to connect with me inside the classroom and outside the classroom,” Cheek said. “I believed I could win in her class because she believed in me.”
Ms. Smothers, who continues to teach after 45 years, cheered from the audience at Forsyth County Schools’ annual Celebration of Excellence on Thursday, March 10, as Cheek was named the 2022 Teacher of the Year.
“What an incredible honor,” Cheek said.
He was one of several individuals recognized by the school system at this year’s Celebration of Excellence, which was held at the Forsyth County Conference Center and streamed online for viewers at home.
FCS Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden kicked off the event by honoring the school system’s Partners in Education before last year’s Teacher of the Year, Kim Sarfaty, read the names of the 39 Teachers of the Year chosen at each school across the county.
System and community leaders also honored the seven finalists chosen last month with a short video describing the impact they have had at their school. Each of them were called up to the stage to receive their reward before Wes McCall, chairman of the Forsyth County Board of Education, named Cheek as the winner of the 2022 Teacher of the Year.
Cheek approached the microphone to give a speech with tears in his eyes.
He expressed gratitude for Forsyth County Schools, his team at Vickery Creek, his family and most of all, his students.
“To my students, you bring overwhelming joy into my life and into our classroom,” Cheek said. “Thank you for inspiring me. You are why I love teaching, and without you, I would not be standing here today.”
Cheek said he found success as a teacher today because Ms. Smothers took the time to connect with him when he was a student. She taught him how to be a great teacher and connect with his own students.
He said his time as a basketball coach at the school also showed him that important lesson.
He recalled a game where his team was facing a county rival, and although he had been coaching for five years, he said he “had never been able to lead [the] team in a victory against this school.
“I don’t remember a lot of the details from that game, but what I do remember is, on that night, we were the better team,” Cheek said.
They were able to, against all odds, win that first game.
“There is something about winning a game that you are not expected to win that drives you toward getting better,” Cheek said. “When I walked off the court that night, I began to believe that I could prepare a team to compete and win — even against a more talented opponent.
He saw that win build a confidence in his players that they could win against any school in the county if they had their coach at their side.
“The majority of my students that I teach don’t believe they are going to win when it comes to math,” Cheek said. “Many of them have found no success or little success in a math classroom. They haven’t earned a win in a long time. As their coach and as their teacher, my job is to build a belief that they can win, and they will win.”
In this way, Cheek said there are a lot of similarities to what he does on the court and in the classroom. In either space, the most important thing he believes he can do is make that connection with students that he had with Ms. Smothers.
“It is amazing to think because Ms. Smothers connected with me, I am now connecting with my students,” Cheek said. “And because I am connecting with my students, they will build a belief that they can win in math. But more importantly, maybe one day, they will connect with their students because I connected with them.
“For me, that is what is most important in education.”
After finishing his speech, Andean Chevrolet presented Cheek and his family with a lease for a new Chevy Equinox, their four kids jumping into the vehicle parked inside the conference center to test out the seats.
But Cheek and his family were not the only ones awarded at the celebration.
Sponsored by Corner Farms, the 2022 Mentor of the Year award went to Brenda Alhir, who has mentored in the county for many years.
Ken Chrzanowski presented the 2022 Friend of the School award on behalf of Georgia United Credit Union to the Forsyth-Cumming Optimist Club and the Walmart Foundation.
Jeff Butterworth of Georgia Power presented the 2022 Volunteer of the Year award to Dennis and Linda Whittle for the many hours they have put into mentoring, teaching and working with students in the county.
Lynn Jackson, administrator of Northside Hospital Forsyth, presented the 2022 Silver Program of the Year award to Georgia United Credit Union, and Freda Hardage with Northside Hospital Forsyth presented the 2022 Gold Program of the Year to Mentor Me North Georgia.
Lastly, The Chantal and Tommy Bagwell Foundation was named as the winner of the 2022 Don Hendricks Partnership Award, the highest honor that a Partner in Education can receive.
The Hendricks family said the foundation has worked with FCS for more than 20 years to provide support, helping to build the first computer lab at Chestatee Elementary, provide donations for agricultural science programs, give financial support to the North Forsyth cluster schools and more.
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.
“Many of you have heard me say before that the best schools and the best school systems are the ones where home, school and community work together as partners,” Bearden said. “I can’t think of any other school district that is more blessed than ours.”