Now a Teacher, Still a Student
By Tiffany King
Congratulations to Brett Baxter, the 2021 Teacher of the Year for Golden Isles Elementary School. The College of Coastal Georgia alum and kindergarten teacher truly embodies what it means to be Teacher of the Year—excellence, compassion, and innovation in creating a great learning environment for children.
Being selected as Teacher of the Year for his school was a great honor for Baxter. His colleagues voted on who they felt deserved to be Teacher of the Year from a list of eligible candidates, with the winner going on to vie for 2021 Glynn County’s Teacher of the Year. The list was narrowed down to three, and the winner for Golden Isles was announced during a special ceremony in September.
“It was a wonderful ceremony here. It was on the morning news, and my wife got to be here,” Baxter said. “She’s been a big support system for me. She’s been absolutely amazing.”
The Glynn County School district recently selected Paige Browning of Glynn Academy as its Teacher of the Year for the county. Even though Baxter wasn’t selected, he’s proud to represent his school and was happy for the other candidates who made the top five and the eventual winner.
“We’ve not had a state winner from Glynn County since 1996, but we have some good candidates this year. They’re all very well-deserving,” he said.
As Teacher of the Year for Golden Isles, Baxter and the previous winner attended the Technology Association of Georgia Education Collaborative(TAG-Ed) meeting for their school. Baxter polled the faculty on what issues they wanted to be presented at the TAG meeting, then after cross-referencing those with the principal, shared them with the TAG committee. The TAG committee and other educators then brainstormed solutions and ideas.
Baxter was born in Brunswick, where he lived until he was two. He and his mother moved to North Carolina, and he’s been back and forth between North Carolina and Brunswick, visiting family every summer and Christmas. In 2005 he moved back permanently and was on his way to becoming a teacher.
A Growing Passion for Teaching and Learning
Baxter was inspired to become a teacher by his mother, a special education teacher. She modeled what it means to have compassion, and he saw how she could affect other people’s lives.
“We always had a child at our house—a child in need,” he said. “We would also buy extra clothes to take to school.”
At age 16, he worked part-time at his aunt’s daycare as a floater, sitting in classrooms while the teachers went to lunch. It was then that he realized he enjoyed working with children.
“That’s when I found out that I could work with kids, and kids could work with me. It’s a two-way street. A lot of people say, ‘I want to work with kids or I love kids’ but when they get around them, it doesn’t work. They’re not drawn to that person. They have to take to you as well,” Baxter said.
He continued to work with youth through his late teens, feeding into his goal to one day teach.
When Baxter returned to Brunswick, he worked as was a substitute teacher. This allowed him to get a feel of the different schools and staff. His first full-time position was as a long-term substitute. He then became a special education paraprofessional for four years at Altama Elementary School, then worked in the same role at Glynn Academy. Baxter returned to Brunswick with an associate’s degree from Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina and enrolled at the College to earn his bachelor’s. He graduated from the College in 2016 with another associate’s degree and a Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood/Special Education. Baxter is also certified in both early childhood education and special education. He became a kindergarten teacher at Golden Isles three months later.
Teachers never stop learning. His students keep him updated on the latest trends, toys, cartoons and teach him that relationships matter.
“Kids come from all walks of life, and they all need the same education. The kids don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care,” he said. “Kids have to feel safe for them to participate. You have to allow the students to fail and provide a safe space for them where they are not embarrassed, but can embrace their failure, rise from it, and understand what they need to do differently.”
He also recognized that children are exposed to much more at their age compared to past generations. He described kindergarten as being more rigorous, with daily phonics, reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. Baxter considers kindergarten to be “the great leveler” where different types of children—those coming from pre-K or straight from home—learn what it means to be what he calls “functioning pieces of society.” Baxter has also seen how children learn from their peers better than from the teacher. Children can explain things to each other in more relatable terms and are motivated when they see their peers do something.
What Baxter learned about himself is that he learns through music. He wasn’t musically inclined growing up, even though he loved listening to music. Now he plays the ukulele—a gift from his wife 10 years ago—and uses it to teach reading, science, and math.
“There’s a lot of content you can hide in music. The kids are enjoying themselves and are learning at the same time,” Baxter said. “I always prided myself on being energetic and funny, and music takes care of that for me. Sometimes if I come in feeling down, I just pick up the ukulele. It gets the kids hyped and gets my mind back into the island vibe. It sets things the right way.”
Baxter’s ukulele abilities are self-taught from watching tutorials online. Once he’s learned the chords of a song, he’s ready to play it the next day for the children. His goal is to introduce the concept of school to children and reassure them that at moments it might be scary, but it will be fun, and that they’re all in this together.
Baxter has received a number of accolades during his teaching career so far, but his dream is to see his first group of kindergarteners all graduate from high school.
“That would be my greatest accomplishment—to watch them fulfill their public school education and then go to do whatever they want,” he said. “It’s a very rewarding career. It’s interesting daily, especially in kindergarten. You never know what the day is going to hold.”
Apart from working with children, his favorite aspect of the teaching profession is the camaraderie he’s experienced between himself and the faculty. He described people from all walks of life coming together for one common goal. Baxter also praised his classroom paraprofessional Fran Guilfoil for her compassionate heart and for always ensuring that no child goes without in the classroom.
“She goes light years and beyond for these kids,” he said.
Memories from Coastal
One of Baxter’s favorite memories from his time at Coastal was when he and other teacher candidates did a STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Math) service-learning project at Altama Elementary. They did an activity where students painted with primary colored ice cubes. The melting ice cubes formed secondary and complementary colors that taught about art, phases of matter, and simple addition, such as red and blue equals purple. Another favorite memory was a weekend at Epworth by the Sea on St. Simons for team-building exercises, where he learned about the importance and benefits of collaboration. He recalled some of his favorite professors, such as education professors Dr. Ron Reigner and Dr. Deborah Smith. Smith showed him that a person can teach anything through art. Baxter also shared how Dr. Claire Hughes, professor of elementary education and special education, helped him get through a rough patch.
“There was a time where I took a year off. Dr. Claire Hughes was very instrumental in helping me. She said, ‘Sometimes you just need to step off the carousel. The carousel will keep spinning, but every now and then, you need to step off.’ So I did, and I truly believe that I wouldn’t be a teacher now if I hadn’t taken that time off, finished up what I needed to do in my personal life, and continued. Such a very supportive staff,” he said.
Baxter is very proud of the College’s teacher education program. As part of his school’s interview process, he sees all types of job candidates and said that Coastal Georgia’s graduates are the most prepared. He attributes this to the College’s rigorous program and opportunities that prepare education majors for what teachers face in the real world.
“They’ve got a great system over there. I would put it up against any education program in the nation,” Baxter said. “And who doesn’t like going to school by the beach.”
His advice to those who want to be a teacher is to substitute and remember that promptness and communication are key. He assures students that it is okay if they realize that teaching isn’t their passion.
“If it ends up not feeling like a passion, then go find what does feel like a passion. But if it does, then you scratch and claw, and do everything that you possibly can to get into the profession because there’s nothing more rewarding,” Baxter said. “There will continue to be generation after generation of children that need good quality education, and we are the key to a better society.”
When Baxter is not busy being an awesome kindergarten teacher, he enjoys surfing, snowboarding, going to the beach with his nieces and nephews, cooking, fishing, and biking with his dog Cosmo.