TUPELO • Teaching comes naturally for Jordan Graham. It’s what he loves to do, to the point that he doesn’t even consider it a job.
Graham is the head football coach at Tupelo Middle School, but previously taught 11th grade AP and U.S. History at Tupelo High School. He received a Tupelo Teacher of Distinction Award on Friday afternoon for his work in that former role.
As a teacher, Graham meets students where they’re at educationally and works to elevate them to a higher level by the time they part ways.
“I try to relate with the kids, be honest with the kids at all times,” Graham said. “My own history as a kid was not good, and I’m trying to make sure that other kids don’t follow some of the same mistakes, so those are the ones that I really seek to help.”
Graham is among 20 teachers and five assistant teachers in Tupelo Public School District who received Teacher of Distinction awards between Sept. 8-11. The awards were distributed to teachers during small ceremonies at each school, which were cosponsored by the Association for Excellence in Education (AEE) and the CREATE Foundation. These smaller programs were held in lieu of a luncheon that’s traditionally held each year to celebrate the nominees and winners.
“CREATE Foundation and AEE are always strong partners and we always want to make sure that we recognize the work of our teachers in the Tupelo Public School District,” Albine Bennett, Director of Communications for CREATE, said. “So instead of canceling the event, we thought outside the box.”
The Teacher of Distinction Awards program was started by the CREATE Foundation in 1999 to recognize, reward and support teachers and assistant teachers in Tupelo Public Schools.
Teachers are nominated by students, other teachers, administrators, parents and citizens. An outside panel of professional educators select the winners.
Winning teachers received a plaque and a $1,000 check; assistant teachers received a plaque and $500.
“Our teachers are being asked to go above and beyond as a part of their regular requirements and deserve the recognition for that work,” Stewart McMillan, Project Manager for the Toyota Wellspring Education Fund, said. “To be able to get a beautiful award and a check that they can do with what they see fit, that there aren’t parameters around, I hope is a major push in terms of support that they’ll feel from our community.”
Lorie Murphy, an assistant teacher at Lawndale Elementary School who received a Teacher of Distinction Award, has spent 22 years working for the district. She teaches the Roadways Into Developing Elementary Students (RIDES) class, which is a STEM skills program developed by MDOT.
“It’s just an honor and a blessing that your peers appreciate what you do,” Murphy said. “The kids we have, sometimes they just need a hug, just need a kind word.”
Murphy tries to make learning engaging and fun for her students – and they often teach her as well, so she learns along with them.
“It’s just a blessing,” Murphy said. “This has been a calling that I’m thankful every day for.”
Sharon Crump, an assistant special education teacher at Parkway Elementary School, said being recognized as a Teacher of Distinction “means everything” to her. She found her calling when she began working for Tupelo Schools around 15 years ago.
“When I first started in the district, I was just a parent, and my daughter was at Lawhon and I was new to the area,” Crump said. “I went every morning, and I was a part of the classroom. From then on, I knew that this was what I wanted to do, I wanted to teach.”
Crump said she treats every child as if they were her own and loves them as she would want her child to be loved by someone else.
Additional sponsors of this year’s awards include B & B Concrete, Inc., Imbler Foundation, Room to Room Furniture, Booth Family Endowment Fund, Jennifer and Pat Caldwell, Dr. Kristy Luse, Marilyn and Bob Monroe Endowment Fund, BankPlus, Reed Family Trust Endowment Fund, Renasant Bank, Tupelo Kiwanis Club, Tupelo Rotary Club, Tupelo Civitan Club, Reed’s Department Store, CORE Cycle+Outdoors, James and Frances Williams, Mize Foundation, Tupelo/Lee County Community Foundation, Hardy Reed, Community Bank and Young Law Group.
Individuals or businesses interested in sponsoring or getting involved in the annual Teacher of Distinction Awards can contact the CREATE Foundation.
Here's the full list of Teacher of Distinction winners by school:
Early Childhood Education Center
Cheryl Dexter, Teacher
Carrie Hurst, Assistant
Katherine Dendy, Teacher
Emily Elkin, Teacher
Maggie Montgomery, Teacher
Emily Nichols, Teacher
Nakeysha Shannon, Assistant
Sharon Coleman Crump, Assistant
Amanda Holland, Teacher
Amy Kingsley, Teacher
Thomas Street Elementary
Libby Ezell, Assistant
Leslie Tally, Teacher
April Nichols, Teacher
Leigh Carol Neelly, Teacher
Amanda Ball, Teacher
Lorie Murphy, Assistant
Connie Buse, Teacher
Trayce Nance, Teacher
Tupelo Middle School
Carla Brooks, Teacher
Katherine Holland, Teacher
Yolanda Randle, Teacher
Tupelo High School
Natasha Richey, Teacher
Jordan Graham, Teacher
Marlo Hendrix, Teacher
Kelly King, Teacher