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Americus native recognized in Houston County

By Kristin Moriarity

PERRY — Lisa Duke, an Americus native, has been named Teacher of the Year at Feagin Mill Middle School in Houston County.
“For me if I put God first everything else falls into place, and that is one of my philosophies in teaching and life is to have his light shine through me to help others.” — Feagin Mill Middle School’s Teacher of the Year, Lisa Duke.
Duke is originally from Americus. She graduated from Georgia Southwestern State University and while there met her husband, Jason. The two moved to Houston County where it is home for her husband, who graduated from Northside High School. Together they have four children: Austin, Hunter, Cole and Maggie. Duke started her teaching career in special education at Pearl Stephens Elementary School in 1992, and taught there for three years. She took time off to raise her children, and then in 2002, was hired at Feagin Mill Middle where she continues to teach today.

Why teaching? What brought you into this field?
“When I was seven years old I helped my mom periodically with a special needs Sunday school class at a group home, which is what sparked my interest in the field initially. So, I, at an early age, was exposed to people with disabilities. At first I was scared of them, but then I became to understand that they were just like a little kid in a big person’s body. When I started college, I started out majoring in physical therapy until one day when I helped with the Special Olympics something spoke to me. I knew then God’s plan for me was to teach special education. Not long after that I started providing respite care for parents of children with special needs through Middle Flint Behavioral Health, which helped confirmed I made the right decision.”

Any inspiration from past teachers?
“My professor Judy Spann at Georgia Southwestern. She had a passion for not only giving us the head knowledge, but the heart knowledge. That was so true to who I wanted to be as a person. You can have all the book knowledge in the world whether it’s through your faith and any aspect of life, you can know all about it, but if it’s not in your heart it really doesn’t have much meaning. So, because she had that passion to show us, it inspired me to teach. There’s so much we have to do as teachers, but really our job is to love on these kids is what’s most important. And also, my paraprofessionals that I have worked with through the years have taught and inspired me so much. They get paid so little and never get the recognition they deserve. I truly appreciate them for their friendship and all they do.”

What do you like most about teaching? What is the best part?
“The relationships you build with students, co-workers and people in the community. To me it’s important in my class because of the needs of my kids. You really become close with the families. They have my cell phone number, and I’ll text them at night asking how they’re doing because maybe during the day their child was not feeling good. They are all like family to me. Same for my co-workers, we sometimes act more like sisters. We all get along so well.”

What is the most challenging part of teaching?
“There is so much mandated paperwork and assessments that come from federal, state and local telling you what you have to do. That is the job, but sometimes it can be frustrating because the most important thing, like I have said, is to love on these kids and give them what they need. It’s hard when, for example, you have a student who has a two-year cognitive ability, but you have to teach them eighth-grade material. It’s a tough balance.”

Advice to students
“Get as much college credit as you can while you’re in grade school, the AP and dual enrollment. One of my children did the dual enrollment and received college credit, which helped with the cost of tuition. To my students and all special education students, know that you have a special purpose and that you’re loved. Don’t give on trying to communicate either. It may take us a while to understand you, but we will get it figured out. And know that you teach us more than we teach you.”

Advice to parents
“First of all, I admire what you all do on a 24/7 basis. Children with special needs, they continue to need help after graduating from school. And I appreciate all you do. Know that we realize it’s a full-time job and we are here to work together. So, if we ever voice concerns, know that we’re not saying anything negative. We are here to help your child succeed.”