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Effingham County Teacher of the Year
Utopia in a classroom
heather cocke 1
Ebenezer Middle School seventh grade language arts teacher Heather Cocke, above going over some of her students work. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

In her classroom halfway down a hall at Ebenezer Middle School, Heather Cocke has created a utopia for her students.

Cocke, now in her eighth year teaching language arts at Ebenezer Middle, is the EMS teacher of the year and the Effingham County system-wide teacher of the year. Her classroom is reflective of her taste and her style, not just in personality but in how she opens up the world of knowledge to her students.

In a corner, pillows are nestled against an old headboard, with a patch of carpet underneath. It’s the reading corner, where students can take a book or other material and get comfy while poring through their choice. Next to the reading corner is the share chair and ottomans students can pull out and sit on.

Cocke’s classes have the accelerated reader program, where they read for 20 minutes each day.

“Some classes are more motivated to read than others,” she said. “So instead of me standing over them going, ‘read, read, read,’ they can get cozy in the reading corner. They can pull these ottomans out when they’re working in groups. They can pull these carpet squares out. They love to do that.”

Along the back wall is a charging station, so students can plug and juice up their electronic devices. And it’s all under the light of a chandelier.

The classroom is adorned with touches of Cocke’s own personal style, almost exclusively picked up second-hand. The chandelier? That was courtesy of

“I picked up stuff from yard sales and auctions. The kids like it,” she said. “I love auctions. I have a shabby chic passion. I can’t stand to see stuff go to waste. So I repurpose.”

Her colleagues also notice the distinctive elements of Cocke’s décor and how it blends in to her teaching style.

“Who else has a chandelier in their classroom?” asked EMS science Mark Weese, whose classroom is down the hall from Cocke’s. “What’s amazing is how the kids respond to her teaching. They really love being in her classroom. She has a good rapport with the kids.”

As students worked on an assignment from Lois Lowry’s “The Fixer,” Cocke walked through the classroom, playing the music from a jewelry box to let them know their time to complete their work was growing short. The room’s fixtures and accessories aren’t for show. With their magnets, students can build stories and they also learn how to work in groups.

“I’m trying to make writing exciting and fun,” she said.

‘A team player’

Cocke teaches seventh grade language arts, and she’s also gifted and English as a second language (ESOL) certified.

“I have a wide variety of classes,” she said.

Besides helping her students learn and encourage them to explore their world, she’s also willing to assist her fellow educators.

“She is so approachable,” said Weese. “Whenever I have a problem, I can go to her. She’s so professional. We have a lot of fun together. She’s a team player. I steal a lot of ideas from her.”

In her letter of recommendation to the state Department of Education, EMS instructional supervisor Roni Edenfield called Cocke’s classroom “a safe, fun, engaging and interactive learning environment. She does an outstanding job making students feel welcome and comfortable within the classroom and is encouraging to them.”

Cocke got her start in teaching while visiting her sister in Texas. With her degree in secondary education-English from Athens (Ala.) State College, she went to a job fair.

“I was offered a job, and I stayed,” she explained.

She taught English, speech and journalism at a Texas junior high school for two years before moving to Alabama. She taught English literature and composition there for two years prior to moving to Coastal Georgia, from where her husband hailed.

Cocke taught for seven years at South Effingham High School. There, her classes included American literature, British literature, honors literature, SAT prep and creative writing. From there, she went to Jenkins County High School, teaching American literature, honors literature, SAT prep and journalism for three years.

Her time at Jenkins County exposed to her teaching to a different demographic and there, she helped push for an integrated prom. She was asked to be junior class sponsor. When she got to the Millen school, the pass rate on the writing test was 70 percent. She got the number up to 97 percent and made a poster congratulating her students. She showed it live on “Good Morning America.”

Cocke said she grew professionally from her time in Jenkins County.

“I think I’m a better teacher,” she said. “We all learn, just maybe not in the same way on the same day.”

While she enjoyed teaching high school, Cocke relishes teaching middle schoolers.

“There’s not as much engagement and teaching them how to learn,” she said of being in a high school class. “In middle school, they still love it. They still have that excitement about learning.”

On her classroom wall is written, surrounded by a frame she picked up in her antique shopping forays, “Teachers who love teaching teach children who love learning.”

Plugged into learning

Cocke’s love of reading and learning started early. She pointed out how difficult it was for her grandfather, who left school in the third grade and didn’t learn to read. Cocke’s mom filled out his job applications.

“I just think reading is the most important thing you can do for a child,” she said. “We tried to talk him into going back and I saw how not having an education affected his life.”

Her mother instilled in her a passion for reading and education, and Cocke eventually became the first person in her family to graduate from college.

“She made sure we were at the library, and she found money for book fairs,” Cocke said. “I think reading is really important and it can change your life. Reading will take you places you can’t go on your own.”

Her love of reading doesn’t preclude Cocke from putting technology — and modern means of communication — to use in her classroom. She has a Twitter account for her students to use, and her charges create documents using Prezi. She also uses Kahoot and Class Dojo to track and interact with her pupils.

“I think technology has been the biggest change,” she said of her career.

With a cart of Chromebooks checked out from the library, the students in her class can collaborate on a document and display it on a screen, giving Cocke a chance to implement STEM principles in language arts.

Kids have moved on from Twitter, Cocke said, to Instagram as their social media platform of choice. But they dig Class Dojo, where Cocke can play quiz games with them and reward individual students — and each student has their own emoji character.

“The parents can log on, see what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s really user-friendly. It’s an app and I can walk around and do it from my phone. They can do it from their phone. They can do it on the bus.”

While technology can be a boon in the classroom, it also can detour kids from their assignments.

“Kids have a lot more exposure to global things,” Cocke said. “They hear a lot more and they are distracted by a lot more. We are competing with a lot of technology than we had when I started teaching. I think it’s competing for their time.”

There are other outlets also vying for the time and attention of kids these days, Cocke added.

“They’re involved in more. There are more recreational opportunities,” she said.

So when delving into the notion of utopias and dystopias while dissecting “The Fixer” with her students, Cocke had them take a look at Savannah’s Forsyth Park and why it was created.

“I try to make it relevant,” she said, “and that’s why I talked about Forsyth.”

Staying busy

Cocke is involved in EMS beyond the walls of her classroom. She’s also the volleyball coach — the EMS team finished runner-up in the middle school region this year. She played volleyball, basketball and softball in her youth, “but volleyball was my favorite,” she said.

“I wasn’t going to coach,” she said, “but a friend of mine here asked me to help her. I’ve done it four years now and I enjoy it. To get a region banner is really exciting. I had a great group of girls. It’s a lot of fun. There’s a big difference between being a player and a coach.”

One daughter, Madison, is a sophomore on the SEHS volleyball team. Daughter Taylor is a member of the SEHS competition cheerleading team. Cocke even took a rare day off to follow her daughter to a competition.

“She does put in a lot of time,” said Weese. “She’s involved in just about every committee at the school. A lot of the time we spend at the school is not during the bells.”

Cocke said the faculty and staff at Ebenezer Middle is a great group. “It’s a great school,” she proclaimed. “It’s a wonderful place to work and teach.”

As such, it appears Cocke takes the old adage “do what you love and love what you do” to heart.

“I love being a teacher,” she said. “It is my passion. I teach children, I don’t really teach a subject. But I love being a teacher. I don’t think there’s any gift you can give someone than to teach them how to read and open all those doors that are going to help them in the future.

“It keeps me young. I enjoy their humor. They’re a lot of fun. It’s a passion. It’s not a job.”