"I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember," Jones said. "My mom is a teacher, and when I was little, she would bring home extra papers and activities. I would line up baby dolls and stuffed animals to teach them. It is more rewarding than I ever imagined, and I cannot fathom doing anything else with my life."
Smith echoed Jones' statements about teaching being a lifetime goal.
"Since I walked across the stage at my kindergarten graduation, I have wanted to teach," Smith said. "Of course, back then, I wanted to teach because I thought of how great it would be to give the homework instead of having to do it. As I began to become more involved at Georgia College, I learned that teaching was my passion.
"Through student outreach programs, observing and mentoring in schools and my student teaching, I soon learned that this is what God had planned for me to do. I found that my nurturing personality and patience helped me to not only differentiate instruction in my classroom, but it helped me to become a role model for the students to look up to."
Last month, Cartersville City Public Schools gave The Daily Tribune News the opportunity to walk a mile in the shoes of two public school teachers, from the early mornings preparing for the day to staying late to meet with parents.
Both Jones and Smith arrive at the school before 7:15 a.m., with Jones walking her students from the cafeteria to her classroom at 7:35 a.m. Second-graders have the opportunity to spend a few minutes of quiet time reading outside of their classroom door before the day begins at 7:45 a.m.
Before The Daily Tribune News' visit, Jones' class went on a field trip to the Atlanta Zoo.
"Most of [my students] have never been outside of Cartersville ... and we've been working on American symbols like the flag, the bald eagle and things like that, and every flag we saw, they'd [point] and say, 'There's a flag of the United States,' and, 'Those buildings are so tall,"' Jones said enthusiastically at 7:20 a.m. on April 12.
Her love for showing her students a new world was evident in the layout of her classroom -- visually stimulating, lined with colors, shapes, student art and educational posters as well as the outline for the required kindergarten Georgia Performance Standards.
Areas in her room are designated for subjects like literacy and math and are kept separate and students have a large rug to sit on with designated spots when they aren't sitting at their tables.
Jones teaches a Focus Kindergarten class, which means an Early Intervention Program teacher comes to the class during three segments a day to help some students with math, reading and phonics. Before beginning at CPS, all of Jones' students began the year below grade level.
"Sometimes we're all doing [school work] on the same level and sometimes [individual groups] are working on the same concept," Jones said.
For example, some students may be working through a game with EIP teacher Suzi Justus to practice addition while others may work individually.
"I'm in here for the morning and in the afternoon. I pull out students who need extra support," Justus said. "Once students are back on grade level, I release them from my program and I pick up other children who need extra help, so I'm sort of a revolving door with the kids.
"... I can tell you right now, most of our students are grade level."
Jones said students are tested with an assessment titled AIMSweb to determine whether they are on grade level when beginning school.
By the end of the kindergarten year, Jones said, for example, students should be able to count 30 objects.
"If by October they're only counting 10 to 15 [objects], then we're concerned," Jones said.
Justus explained how she works with students to help bring them to grade level.
"Most of what I do are hands-on manipulatives ... targeting specifically what [students] need to do," Justus said.
Jones and Justice said the room would not be complete without the help of paraprofessional Dede Hatfield.
"[Hatfield] is awesome," Jones said, with Justus adding, "It takes all three of us to teach the class."
Jones said, "A lot of parents, I don't think, know what is expected of [kindergarten students]. They don't know until [students] come here and [parents] learn maybe they should have been singing the ABC's and counting with their children because, used to, that is what [students] learned in kindergarten and now we expect them to be reading when they leave [kindergarten] and we expect them to have number sense and things like that."
They said poverty and illiteracy in the home has caused many students to enter school below grade level. In turn, Jones and Justus said they refer parents to community services they feel could be of assistance.
"We've got a range of [student achievement] just like in any other classroom," Jones said.
She explained, while there are traditional textbooks for school subjects, they aren't the guide for how teachers present topics to students.
"[Textbooks] are really more of a resource for us," Jones said. "When I was in middle school you would turn to chapter seven and do the work for that day, but now it's more of a resource that we can pull from. With the Internet, we can pull a lot of cool activities we wouldn't have even known about five years ago."
As 7:35 a.m. approached, Jones went to pick up her students. Walking in single file from the cafeteria, students learned to use a hand gesture with their thumb and pinkie finger that resembled a modified version of the "I love you" symbol of American Sign Language. That is, until they brought their hand to their lips to "shhh" talkers as students were now advising others to be "silent llamas."
Once back in the classroom, students began the day by having one student designated to write the date on the board, which, after not having a calendar lesson the day before due to the trip to the zoo, became a group effort of Jones asking questions about the month and date and having students respond to help the student at the board. They also sang aloud the days of the week.
Students then began doing a pre-writing exercise where their story would have a beginning, middle and end with the letters B, M and E heading the charts at the top of the page.
While working, principal Walter Gordon addressed students over the intercom. After reciting the pledge of allegiance, Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." -- a song Gordon said is a schoolwide student favorite -- played across the intercom, followed by a brief moment of silence, to kick of the school's weekly "Thoughtful Thursday."
The morning learning activities included encouraging students to be proud of a job well done. "Kiss your forehead!" Jones would say as students or an individual student answered a question correctly, prompting the student to kiss his hand and then place it on his forehead, resulting in smiles and laughter as students worked on consonants and vowels.
To break the monotony, at 8:40 a.m. students engaged in light exercise, which included twisting and stretching. Shortly thereafter, students were learning math, but, judging from their smiling faces, they were still having fun as they applied addition skills in a game where they counted in a series where students had to hop from one numeral pad to the next.
After continuing some individual or group math work during which students used the dots on dominoes to count, it was time for recess, which included physical education.
During this time, Jones, Justus and Hatfield worked on their plans for the rest of the day and week, utilizing the approximate 30 minutes.
Asked at separate times how teachers go about working with students amidst the ongoing struggles of public schools as well as the anxieties of knowing about the turbulent home lives of some students and general pressures from the outside world, both Jones and Smith agreed that the classroom was a safe place.
"When you come in here, it's 'game on,'" Jones said.
The smiles on the students' faces throughout the day was evidence they picked up on Jones' and Smith's attitudes. Smith said when she is teaching, she is learning as well.
"With each child that I have taught, I have tried to learn about their different learning styles, as well as how I can help them to succeed," Smith said. "Last year, I had the opportunity to learn Braille because one of my students was visually impaired. For me, it was worth every minute.
"To see one of my students reach their goals and understand the learning standards is worth more than anything in the world to me. As a teacher, the 'ah ha' moment is priceless. To see the look on a child's face after figuring out a difficult problem is the reason I wake up every day and love my job even more."
About 9:50 a.m., students in Jones' class assembled on their classroom rug to have a discussion about fact versus fiction in between listening to Jones read the book "Curious George Visits the Zoo" by Margret Rey.
With the day's itinerary thus far including exercise, math and literature, the average kindergartner, or newspaper reporter, could get pretty hungry by about 10:45 a.m. -- but it was time for me to take a look at second grade. Although the school has lunchroom monitors to allow teachers a lunch break, teachers often are found sitting with their students.
The lunchroom abides by the United States Department of Agriculture School Lunch Program with mandatory nutrition guidelines and provides a "teacher bar" with salad and soup. However, Smith and I both opted for the fried chicken sandwich and curly fries later because second-graders eat during the last lunch session of the day.
Smith's classroom was a bit more barren -- it was days before the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests, which required her to remove some educational posters and reference materials from the walls. At the time, the room did have posters that depicted American government leaders, like President Barack Obama, Gov. Nathan Deal and Cartersville Mayor Matt Santini. Students at this level had desks.
There also were motivational slogans on posters, like, "Poppin' Out Good Work," which had popcorn on a string and displayed student work.
Despite some reference materials being down due to testing, students were moving along quickly when writing a response to the book "Too Many Toys," by David Shannon, before going to their computer class at 11:45 a.m. -- Smith's planning period. She encouraged students as they finished their work and began sharing their responses, saying, "You're going to go down that hill [to the elementary school] and show them what you can do."
"I have a conference with a parent this afternoon so I'm preparing for [the conference] ... but sometimes during my planning period I have to meet with other teachers to talk about lesson plans, then I'll meet with [Response Therapy Intervention] because some of my students have support [intervention] outside of the classroom," Smith said. "Two of my students go to speech and so they go to other classrooms and I have to keep a lot of data on every kid in here, so this is just the time where I can do that and complete all the paperwork I need to before I leave.
"In the afternoons, we're allowed to leave at 3:30 p.m., but I teach After School so I never leave school until 5:30."
While both teachers I spent time with had similar tasks during the day, Smith explained how she works with students in her more traditional classroom setting versus a Focus classroom in order to address various learning levels of students.
"I have five different math groups I work with each week and just rotate through [instruction] with what they need," Smith said. "Then you just figure out through basic scores -- like the CRCT from last year -- you can see where they're at, but for RTI they really have to be struggling in something."
All of Smith's students are at grade level or above, with a few students who qualify for EIP.
One common theme observed in Jones' and Smith's classrooms were the connections students drew from their literature, with Jones' students referencing their trip to the zoo paralleled with the "Curious George" story, to the more advanced connections students drew from "Too Many Toys" in terms of what writing elements the author used to convey the story and the students' opinions of the story.
"A lot of the kids will draw pictures in kindergarten, by first grade they'll write sentences, then in second grade they're writing papers," Smith said. "Some kids aren't there yet with the strong connections, but through the [GPS], the [standards for connections] are aligned.
"They'll be doing responses to literature through the 12th grade, so it's neat to watch it all fall into place."
By 12:25 p.m., it was time to end the computer class and return to Smith's room to learn science. Students responded to Smith's question to explain a frog's life cycle, by charting what students know, what they wanted to know and what they learned, as part of the learning process.
After science, the class headed to the cafeteria at about 12:50 p.m. for a hot meal after a long day's work. When they returned to class about 1:30 p.m., they learned their previous quest for science was only the beginning -- Smith told the students they would continue researching life cycles the following week.
At 1:40 p.m., Smith played a quiz game with students where they had to choose from categories like synonyms, antonyms, contractions as well as prefixes and suffixes. Nearing 2 p.m., students were asked to complete some silent reading and to write in their journals about why they did a good job during the school day.
At 2:20 p.m., we took another long walk through the building, leading approximately 20 students to the bus. The hugs she received and hearing students say, "We want to go home with you, Mrs. Smith," followed by laughter, echoed her previous sentiments about the school providing a safe place where students are happy.
While Smith and Jones finished up their work for the day -- which included meeting with parents, other teachers and teaching After School -- I spoke with the principal.
The decision to hire a teacher ultimately is left to the school board, but Gordon provided me with what he feels the school is looking for in a teacher.
"A teacher is an individual who first loves kids, has in them the desire to teach and just loves to see children learn," Gordon said. "I think [teachers] instill in [students] the joy of learning.
"A teacher has to have patience, a teacher has to be understanding and they have to have a good heart."
One trait Gordon did not mention that I learned I had fallen short on since my days as a grocery store bag boy and box office attendant -- having the ability to be on your feet for most of the day and the energy to walk, walk, then walk some more, making sure there is no child left behind. That measure is not protected by the state's new waiver.