Everyone has a teacher, whose kind-hearted influence sticks to their heart and memory like sweet, Georgia honey. The impact of their lessons and words of encouragement illuminates through your recollection of time, reminding you that even though you cannot teach kindness, you can give it away to anyone that needs it. For me, and many others, Mrs. Chawny Stewart was that teacher. I remember the first time that I walked into her classroom. As my momma walked me in, I huddled behind her, scared and anxious, unknowing of what the year would bring and how my peers would react to me. Would I make friends despite my shyness? Would my teacher have patience with me? What would I learn? Then I met Mrs. Chawny, and her compassionate nature melted those worries away. I was excited to go to school, learn and to simply just be in her calming presence.
Now, 20 years later with a primary-aged child of my own, I still consider her loving traits while guiding him through his own life. When asked if she believes that a teacher can leave a lasting impression on their students, Mrs. Chawny optimistically said, “A teacher can choose to make a positive or negative lasting impression. I can remember from my elementary school years the many teachers that left lasting positive impressions on me, and of course, the ones that were negative. It only takes one incident for a child to have a lasting negative impression. I pray that when my past students think of me and their time in my classroom, they have a loving, caring, and safe memory!”
As one of her past students, I can assure you that is the exact memory I have of her. She truly embodies empathy, a skill that you cannot learn, but one that you absolutely need if you want to be an incredible teacher. That is why her true calling has always been education: “There is nothing else I have ever wanted to be! I have wanted to be a teacher my entire life. I never understood in college why my friends kept changing their majors. I did not realize that not everyone always knew what they wanted to be. I am truly blessed to do what I absolutely love.”
Her attentiveness to the children that walk into her classroom has embraced hearts for 30 years, leaving an ever-lasting impression on many Swainsboro students and natives. Her greatest influence, however, was left on the heart of her own daughter, Lelyn Stewart, who followed the path that was meant for her, just as it was meant for her mother years before.
“I truly believe that teaching is in my genetics,” Stewart said. “I grew up walking the halls of Swainsboro Primary School, and so many core memories are centered around there. From playing teacher with the other teachers’ kids to ‘helping,’ probably hindering more than helping, my mom around her classroom. I have always loved school. Growing up watching my mom make an impact on hundreds of children's lives is something that frankly spoke volumes to me. I knew from an early age that I wanted to be exactly like her. With such a strong connection to school and following in the footsteps of such an influential and impactful teacher, choosing to become an educator was an easy and obvious choice.”
Lelyn understands the importance of instilling a loving foundation within the classroom, because you cannot inspire without first being the inspiration: “Teachers are seen as some of the most influential adults in childrens' lives. One interaction, positive or negative, can significantly change a child’s viewpoint on school.”
Lelyn started her teaching career almost two years ago. Deciding at that moment that she wanted to work next to the influence, and within the same halls, that started it all - her mom and Swainsboro Primary. While she teaches second grade, you can still find Mrs. Chawny down the first-grade hall, continuing her legacy of touching hearts to teach minds. Celebrated children's author, Judy Blume, said, “Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch.” And now Mrs. Chawny and Ms. Stewart are together at SPS, instilling impressions that will last a lifetime, one little scholar at a time.
Now that you have met the teachers and heard their stories, read their Q/A’s to further understand their values of teaching and how, even with the same genetics, they differ amongst one another.
What do you find most rewarding in your career?
Chawny: The rewards are countless! They go from the daily hugs and smiles from my students to the excitement I see when a child finally realizes that he/she CAN do HARD things. My life has been rewarded the most by the relationships I have built with students and their families. I enjoy following my past students as they move up Tiger Trail and cheer them on as they become their own person.
Lelyn: Every day brings a new reward or joy. Seeing my students overcome their academic challenges as well as hearing about them reach their personal goals outside of school brings joy to my heart. I believe the smallest of achievements or even putting in your best effort still deserves the biggest of celebrations.
Do you feel that each of your students have left a lasting impression on you?
Chawny: 100% yes! I always say, “Once you are my 1st grade baby, you are ALWAYS my 1st grade baby.” For 30 years I have laughed, cried, and celebrated with my students. I do not know how anyone can do this job without their students leaving lasting impressions on them. To this day, I can think of past students and still have emotions come up.
Lelyn: ABSOLUTELY! I have only been in the classroom for a year and a half, but within that short amount of time I have been forever changed by the students who have walked into my classroom. Even though I have the title teacher, my students have taught me so much.
What is most challenging in your line of profession?
Chawny: When you are a teacher you worry about your students 24 hours a day. I cannot turn off my worries and concerns about my babies when I walk out of the school building. I worry about students that are not getting a concept, students that may not be getting the proper care at home, a sick student, students that are above grade level and if I am challenging them enough. These worries honestly keep me up at night. This is not a profession that you can just “leave at work”.
Lelyn: There is a constant worry. Are my students' needs getting met at home? Did they have a problem on the bus ride home? Is there an issue they are not telling me about. Are my students understanding what I am teaching? Is there something different I could be doing to better reach this student. What should I be doing to help them become more successful? Am I doing enough? Even though I leave the school every day, my mind is constantly going back to the school worrying about my 17 students.
What advice can you give to new or upcoming educators?
Chawny: Before you teach “content” you have to build relationships and let your students know that you love them no matter what! Your students have to trust you and know that you have their “back” before true learning can begin. When that relationship is established, a child will feel safe to try new “hard” things and feel safe to not succeed the first time. LOVE YOUR STUDENTS WITH ALL YOUR HEART AND THEY WILL MOVE MOUNTAINS!
Lelyn: 1.) Love your students with all your heart and SHOW THEM YOU DO! When your students know you love them and care for them, they are more willing to accept adversity and challenges they face.
2.) Be ready to wear many ‘hats’ at once. As a teacher, you are never just a teacher. You are a role model, a cheerleader, an artist, a musician, a data collector, a second parent, and the list goes on.
3.) You are never done learning. You might have the title teacher, but you yourself are constantly learning and growing.
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