During her senior year of high school, Shelby Ventura decided to take a teaching pathway class as a way to get off campus and spend some time with the children in her district’s elementary schools instead of in the classroom. Little did she know that this decision would completely change her life and lead her to realize her calling to become a teacher.
Now the special education lead teacher at Robinson Elementary School, Ventura is in her second year teaching at the school and has been selected as Robinson’s 2022-23 teacher of the year.
Upon graduating high school, Ventura went to the University of North Georgia and participated in a dual program offered by the college to earn her bachelor’s degree in both general education and special education. During a spring break trip to Florida in her senior year of college, she fell in love with the area and realized the need for teachers, so after receiving her degree she moved down to teach in Pinellas County.
Though she loved teaching in Florida, Ventura said that she always felt called to come back to Georgia, so she moved back to teach in Gwinnett County for about three years. But in the back of her mind, she said, she always longed to return to Robinson, where she had student taught several years before.
“I always just had Robinson in my heart — I’m from up here, so after about three years of teaching in Gwinnett I moved back here and interviewed here,” Ventura said. “I was really nervous but everyone was still here and they remembered me. I think Florida and Gwinnett gave me a lot of perspective but coming back here is like coming back home.”
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This year, Ventura is serving as the lead teacher of Robinson’s special education team, teaching preschool, first and second graders, and loving everything about it.
“Every day is different, and every day those kids have a different need,” Ventura said. “I just love it; I love giving anybody what they need, making people feel good about themselves, proving people wrong about how they feel about themselves and making them realize what they’re capable of.”
Ventura said that some of her favorite things about teaching are creating a safe, family space for her students to learn and grow in and seeing the children’s faces when they accomplish a goal, especially a goal they may not have thought they’d reach.
“When kids start to grow their confidence it makes me feel good; I love teaching when you have any kid get better at something they’re struggling with, whether that’s behavior, reading, anything,” Ventura said. “My favorite thing to tell kids every year is ‘if you have a good attitude and you work hard you will be fine and you’re going to get better at anything that you’re struggling with’.”
In her classroom, Ventura teaches by two mottos: “be nice and work hard” and “make it a great day or not — the choice is yours”.
“Especially being a kid, not a lot of things are in your control, but your perspective and how you see things is in your control,” Ventura said. “I went to school in Hall County and our principal used to say that every day; when I was a teenager I didn’t think it was true but now I see how true it is.”
Ventura was announced as the 2022-23 teacher of the year for Robinson during a yearbook assembly in May, and she said that she could not have been more surprised to learn that she had been selected for the honor.
“Ms. Arnette was the principal then and she had all the kids in the gym and said ‘I’m going to start describing the teacher of the year’ and wanted all the kids to point at who they thought it was,” Ventura said. “She announced the staff member of the year first and I was crying from that and then she started describing the teacher… I thought I knew who it was and was really excited for them.”
But when Arnette started talking about how the teacher of the year has a dog named Frank who she loves to talk about with her kids, Ventura realized that her initial guess of who it was might not be correct after all. As Arnette finished describing the teacher of the year, Ventura’s entire family walked out onto the stage and she finally realized who Arnette was really describing.
“I was so shocked and very surprised,” Ventura said. “That was really special to me that my peers would think that highly of me, and I liked that my parents got to see too because I’m the first kid in my family who’s gone to college and graduated; everything I do I always say to my parents ‘it’s because you gave me this opportunities’ so having them there too was so special.”
She said that, after years teaching outside of Dawson, she couldn’t be happier to have come back home and being selected as Robinson’s teacher of the year is just the icing on the cake.
“I’m definitely here to stay; I’ve loved everywhere I ever worked but when I thought about 'I’m going to start settling down soon; where would I want my kids to grow up’, this is where I want my kids to grow up,” Ventura said. “It’s very family-oriented, people here truly care about each other, and Dawson County truly prioritizes people; I feel so respected and loved by my admin, parents, other teachers and it’s just like a big family.”
She added that she uses herself and her own childhood as an example for her students often, so her students seeing her achieve the title of teacher of the year is an encouragement for them too.
“I always talk to my kids about how I struggled as a kid with my behavior so it kind of helped my whole thing of ‘if you work really hard and you have a good attitude you’ll get where you want to go’,” Ventura said.
Using herself as an example and being personal with her students is just one of the many ways Ventura said she makes her classroom feel like one big, safe family environment where her students can thrive.
“All kids just want to be heard and just want to be loved, and if you truly love them you can get them to do anything — they want to make their parents proud and they want to make their teachers proud,” Ventura said. “You do so much all day and you don’t realize until later how that affected them.”
Ventura said that she believes that there are many teachers who are more deserving than her for the honor, but that she couldn’t be more grateful to her fellow teachers who selected her to represent their school as the teacher of the year.
“Nobody who teaches does it for the recognition; it’s definitely a calling and it’s definitely something that I believe the Lord calls you to do,” Ventura said. “All teachers pour their heart and soul; it’s a very time-consuming job but it’s so worth it. There are so many other teachers that deserve to be the teacher of the year so I don’t feel like I deserve it, but I do appreciate it.”