Such standards of quality and personal commitment often reflect the work of those who have previously walked the hallways of our public schoolhouses and sat at the cluttered teachers’ desks of crowded classrooms.
It is their commitment to the careful molding of young minds by which education is made most effective today.
One example, and a rather glowing one, is the late Lillie Frank Fitzgerald. To those who had the good fortune of sitting in her classroom as students or serving with her on a variety of community functions as adults, she was a classy lady.
“Mrs. Fitzgerald,” as some knew her, or “Lillie Frank” or just “Lillie” to others, took no prisoners when it came to teaching.
She taught what needed to be learned.
She taught with an ageless zeal whose borders were unlimited.
She taught with a genuine love for her students and an unconditional care for their futures.
She taught with purpose and with expectation, and with a firm but always fair hand.
She taught with an appreciation of the ideals of education and with an understanding of the pivotal role of teachers in the lives — past, present and future — of their students.
She taught with an uncanny ability to reach for the minds and into the hearts of her young protégés, most of whom left her classroom at semester’s end with a new perspective on the power of the English language, whether its words were spoken aloud or used in print.
She taught with a passion for her school and a pride in its heritage.
An English instructor at Bradley Central High School for 38 years, the lovable and much-admired Mrs. Fitzgerald retired in the 1980s. She passed this life into a new world of learning in 2006.
To say Lillie Frank Fitzgerald was the epitome of teaching quality in the classroom is much the understatement. She was the face of education, the voice of potential and the image of all that is good about the will to teach and the personal conviction for doing it right.
It is in her name, and a tribute to her legacy, that the Lillie F. Fitzgerald Excellence in Teaching Award is presented annually to one or more deserving educators within the Bradley County or Cleveland school systems.
The award is presented at the start of each new school season by her son Dr. Rodney Fitzgerald, himself a retired educator, and his beloved wife of many years, Margo. The Fitzgeralds partner with the Bradley Cleveland Public Education Foundation in making the award possible.
This year’s honor went to two teachers within the city school system.
They are Dianna Johnson of Cleveland Middle School and Erin Hattabaugh of Cleveland High School, both of whom are widely respected leaders in their fields and whose shared vision for education is this: Teach all. Teach with passion. Teach with empathy. Teach with innovation. And do it well.
Their resumes read like a “Who’s Who” of classroom educators.
At CMS, Johnson has worked on the school’s leadership team, the school climate committee, as the eighth-grade ELA Curriculum coordinator, mentor for new staff members, Veterans Day coordinator and Spelling Bee administrator, among other essential responsibilities. And yes, she also finds time for teaching.
At CHS, Hattabaugh is a health science instructor whose list of accolades should serve as the envy of all who enter the teaching arena. She has received the teacher of the year award three times, was named the Cleveland City Schools System Level Teacher for 2014, earned the Tennessee Career Technical New Educator Award and operated one of 17 pilot sites in the Biotechnical Engineering curriculum.
Their awards came during the recent teacher orientation prior to the start of classes at city schools. This year-opening in-service served as an appropriate setting for the awards because it allowed the system’s entire faculty and staff to honor two of their own.
Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland said it best when he reached out to the entire group, and not just the Fitzgerald Award recipients. He spoke of their importance.
“You are not only educating the children, but you are giving them love and support and pointing them in the right direction for life,” the longtime mayor declared. “The city of Cleveland is grateful for all that you do every day.”
Were the setting to be changed to a county backdrop, surely Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis would have said much the same to his jurisdiction’s own army of educators.
The point is this. Educators are our present. Education is our future. And those who wear the label proudly are those who make a difference.
We congratulate Dianna Johnson and Erin Hattabaugh for doing what they do best. We salute their colleagues of the classroom and we thank Rodney and Margo Fitzgerald, and the BCPEF, for finding a way to say thank you.
Perhaps most of all, we thank those who came first — teachers like Lillie Frank Fitzgerald who gave their lives to the classroom and their hearts to a cause.