"It's all about her students."
Those are the words of Clarkdale principal Cheryl Thomas describing teacher Toni Buchanan, who was surprised earlier this month to learn that she had been chosen the Golden Apple Teacher of the Month for November. She is a 10-year veteran of Clarkdale where she teaches Agriculture and Natural Resources, I and II.
During the presentation of the Golden Apple Award, Buchanan received a Golden Apple trophy, a $300 check, a voucher for $1,000 in school supplies and she will automatically be in the running for teacher of the year, which will be announced in May.
Thomas said Buchanan is also known for holding her students to high standards.
"Her dedication is not just during the day. She spends hours after school with her students, on weekends, on holidays," Thomas said. "She also helps build character like nobody I've ever seen. She sincerely cares about every aspect of their lives. Her greatest joy is helping them look at life and what they are going to do when they make plans for their careers."
A letter nominating Buchanan for the award praised her ability to keep her students challenged.
"One of the first things I learned about Mrs. Buchanan was that if she needed help to challenge her students in an area, she would find someone with the necessary skills to teach them and help them to succeed," the letter states. "This is especially true with her students competing in District, State, and National FFA contest. She has had individuals and teams placing high in each of these contests year after year. She has one of the strongest FFA programs in Mississippi, having three state officers in recent years."
Randy Hodges, superintendent of the Lauderdale County School District, said teachers like Buchanan make a difference in the success of their students and the Golden Apple is a good way to let teachers know that their work is appreciated.
"In education we know that teachers are the difference," Hodges said. "We know that if you have a good school district it's because of a good classroom teacher."
Buchanan said she was surprised and overwhelmed by the honor.
"You don't expect, as a teacher, for people to realize the things you are doing," Buchanan said. "Knowing that students and community members thought enough to take time out of their busy day and schedule to write a letter about me is truly an emotional and overwhelming feeling."
Buchanan started her career as a 4-H Youth Agent in Tennessee, but then returned home to Mississippi begin her teaching career.
"It was a learning curve. I never thought I would teach shop classes," Buchanan said. She added that she had a good science background but she had to learn more about shop classes.
Although she had several good teachers growing up, she credits her family and growing up on a farm with having the biggest impact on her career. Buchanan said before she began teaching she had an idea about high school students; that they were mean.
"I say that jokingly but they are very hard-working, respectful," Buchanan said. "They are great kids and I have an opportunity to see that. Looking back I never expected to be in a classroom. In some ways I'm still surprised that I'm here in a classroom."
But now that she is in the classroom, she wouldn't change a thing.
"After you get to know the kids; when you work with them it's not something you could easily, consciously decide not to do," Buchanan said.
A large focus of her instruction is opening the door to career ideas for her students.
"Working in career and tech especially, we get to talk about plants and science, but every single unit, whether it be in the shop or in the classroom, we talk about careers," Buchanan said.
And she enjoys seeing her students' faces when they realize what career they are interested in.
"It's just awesome to know that you had a part in helping them figure out (a career path or) what they didn't want to do because sometimes that's just as important or even as rewarding as figuring out what they do want to do," Buchanan said. "It just makes you feel like you have accomplished something that day. You've found your purpose and you've helped them as well."
Buchanan advises new teachers to stay ahead of the paperwork.
"Don't let the red tape get you. It's a lot about following rules and guidelines and grading papers but that's not what it's truly about," Buchanan said. "If you have a heart for students and you want to see them succeed you'll get past the rest of it."
Buchanan has kept track of some of her former students; 12 are welding on either off-shore or land rigs; three are working for EMEPA; several are working in construction, and one has finished his master's at Mississippi State and is working in forestry.
"Every single thing we do, we discuss a career involving it and whether it's something you're interested in or not. I try to show them that there are a lot of careers out there that they may not even know about," Buchanan said.
It helps, particularly with the FFA program, to have supportive parents as well as a supportive community.
"With our FFA, we travel a lot. We go to leadership conferences where the kids compete. If it wasn't for the people in our community buying our holiday hams or their Christmas fruits from us, the kids wouldn't get to experience that type of stuff," Buchanan said. "A lot of the success that we have here in our program is 100 percent backed by our community."
Dalton Hodges is among Buchanan's students who was glad to see her receive the Golden Apple.
"She's great to us. She will do anything in the world for us," Hodges said. "She's just an all around good person."
"It's all about her students."
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