Teacher of the Year inspired by grandmother


By Scott Akanewich

When Cheryl Russell was a young girl in school, she had someone always there to provide both instruction and inspiration.

Grandmother Alice Speis, who spent an entire career as a teacher on the front lines of education, served as a shining beacon to her granddaughter.

“One great influence and one defining moment led me to this career,” said Russell, who was recently named Bill Burden Teacher of the Year for 2019-20. “My grandmother was my greatest influence. She was always around to take my sister and I to and from school as she taught at the same school we attended. She let us help in her classroom from time to time, helped us study and she was always reading to us. She gave me a love for reading to children because I could tell she enjoyed it so much. She decided to get her education degree after losing her husband in an oil field fire. She had four children and her teaching job provided a stable home.

“The defining moment came in high school when I was helping a friend who struggled in algebra. I will never forget the feeling I felt when at the moment I was able to help him understand. It was so satisfying,” Russell said.

Fast-forward a couple decades and Russell has just wrapped up her 21st year as a teacher and seventh at Burden – all part of a career that has seen her ply her trade at different schools from the Gulf Coast to the Texas Panhandle, as she has taught first, second, fourth and fifth grades at various points along the way.

According to Russell, who currently teaches second grade, she chose the elementary level due to the formative time of her students’ lives she can take part in, which takes her to a gratifying state of mind.

“I love that I can make a positive difference in so many lives,” said Russell. “Also, I love and adore children. They make me happy. When I’m down about something before school and I enter a room full of kids, I forget about everything. The world is suddenly a safe and happy place.”

Russell added being bestowed with such an award by those who work alongside makes it that much more invaluable.

“I truly appreciate the honor especially since it’s one given by my teaching peers. These are the people that see me interact with kids on a daily basis, so it’s important to know they see me as a leader in our school and someone they can trust with our most precious assets,” she said. “I have been blessed to teach many of their personal children and their previous students. Nothing touches my heart more than being honored by those who trust me enough to love on and educate their children.”

Burden Elementary Principal Tanya Lambert lauded Russell as one who always finds a way to get objectives accomplished.

“There’s not a challenge I can think of Mrs. Russell isn’t willing to meet head on,” said Lambert. “She’s going to do what is best for her students no matter how difficult it may be. The love and care she provides her kids is second to none. Mrs. Russell is deeply respected and loved at BBE by students and staff, has earned the title of Teacher of the Year, and we couldn’t be more thrilled for her.”

For Russell, she relishes the opportunity to interact with students who are only beginning their respective educational journeys – to the point where she is more at home with them than people her own age, she said.

“Teaching the youngest of students comes naturally to me,” said Russell. “I don’t know how different it is from other levels because I’ve always taught in the elementary grades. I imagine it might take a little more patience and additional effort to work at their developmental level. However, I actually find it more comfortable to hang out and converse with children under the age of 10 than most adults.”

Being a teacher has certainly undergone its fair share of changes over the years, all of which are good, she said.

“The profession has certainly changed over the last 21 years. Lesson planning and instruction are much more intentional and focused, teaching is better supported with collaborative teams and the state standards are more in-depth,” said Russell. “When I first started teaching, a computer on every child’s desk was hard to imagine – but the time is here. I think my style is still to bring as many fun, hands-on, real-life experiences to kids as I can. Technology has definitely made that easier to accomplish.”

Russell said it’s the daily challenge of teaching that fuels her fire – as far as the psychological aspect of the profession in guiding young students on the right path – be it educational or behavioral.

“The best part of being a teacher by far, is interacting with kids. I love to know what they’re thinking and I enjoy how their thoughts guide the learning and teaching in a classroom,” she said. “The hardest part is helping children who struggle with social-emotional control. My hope is students begin to take responsibility for their actions and create solutions, so emotions don’t become a deterrent to their success.”

These days, Russell finds herself having traded places with her grandmother and hopes to have the same kind of influence on the students of today – by leading by example and never giving up.