The award is given to one teacher from either the Cleveland or Bradley County school systems. This teacher is described as demonstrating a passion for teaching and inspiring students with a love of learning.
According to Johnny McDaniel, director of Bradley County Schools, Burris more than meets these qualifications.
“Bridgett is an outstanding teacher. She is the kind of teacher who helps students dream and grow and be all that they can be,” McDaniel said. “She is worthy of recognition.”
Dr. Rodney Fitzgerald and his wife, Margo, established the annual award in honor of Lillie Fitzgerald, Rodney’s late mother. Lillie taught English and speech at Bradley Central High School for 37 years. The award is given through the Bradley Cleveland Public Education Foundation.
“On a daily basis, teachers serve as positive role models for students, showing them how to cope amid life’s difficulties,” Rodney Fitzgerald said. “This year’s recipient has experienced the ups and downs of life personally and yet those around her are amazed by the strength, trust, hope and endurance consistently demonstrated.”
Burris wiped away tears as Fitzgerald presented the award. The winner is kept a secret until the day of the presentation.
“Thank you so much, and thank you to all of you who do this every day. I know what you go through,” Burris said.
Burris’s family joined her up front where hugs were being shared between the second-grade teacher and fellow educators. Ted Bryson, recently retired principal of Oak Grove Elementary, nominated Burris for the award.
“Bridgett Burris is a great teacher among great teachers at Oak Grove Elementary School. I am proud and very glad someone from the school won the award,” Bryson said. “Bridget is every bit deserving of the award.”
According to Bryson, Burris rises above and beyond a teacher’s calling. Bryson said he nominated Burris based on his own deduction and the recommendation of her fellow teachers.
Fitzgerald read a portion of Burris’s personal essay to the Bradley County staff.
“My profession single-handedly saved me from a vicious cycle of poverty, drugs and self-destruction. ... My journey as a teacher has not always been joyous or easy but I consider it a sweet privilege that I would not trade for any corporate position at a famous firm,” Burris said.
McDaniel said Burris’s humble beginnings help her relate to the students. He said she is able to understand many of Oak Grove’s economically disadvantaged students. She knows where they are coming from. He describes Burris as an American success story.
“These students have loved me through pain, happiness, sadness and yes, madness! ... I wake up each day thinking of my students and go to bed each night saying a prayer for them. I pray they see their value in this world as I came to see my own,” Burris said.
Rodney described Burris as a dedicated community worker who has worked on a number of projects ranging from tornado relief to family bereavement fundraisers. She has served on Education Family Committee with BCPEF, Red Clay Reading Council, SACS, and as the rehearsal coach for five years for school plays, among other positions.
Nominations for the award are only considered if they meet several requirements. These include:
n The nominee must be employed as a full-time, certified K-12 teacher in either the Bradley County or Cleveland school system with a minimum of five years of teaching experience
- Communicates effectively across all racial, cultural and economic backgrounds.
- Admired and respected by students, parents and colleagues.
- Utilizes creative, current and relevant strategies in the classroom.
- Embodies the spirit of teaching demonstrated by Lillie Frank Fitzgerald — professional, articulate, and passionate about education.
A full resume, dates of service with the local school systems, degrees earned, achievements and recognitions in the field of education, community involvement, and family information on the nominee are also considered.
Lynn Voelz, executive director of BCPEF, said the number of nominations has varied each year. There has been a high of 15 and a low of three.
Burris was presented a check for $3,000 as the 2011 Lillie F. Fitzgerald Excellence in Teaching Award. There are no requirements on how to spend the money.