“You work hard for the people you love and you try for the people you love,” said Megan Hulse, who was recently named Walker County Teacher of the Year. “Once the kids see me doing that for them, they begin to care too.”

Hulse attributes her success in the classroom to this relationship she has with her students, but realizes that it takes a lot of effort. “You never know what your day will be like as a teacher,” she noted. “Are you going to be a counselor or a mom? You have to wear a lot of hats as a teacher.”

In only her third year teaching, Hulse, who teaches third grade at Chattanooga Valley Elementary School, noted that she is still in shock at winning the countywide honor. “I owe a lot of it to Covenant College (where she graduated in 2016), and a lot to Chattanooga Valley (Elementary School),” she said. “They saw something special in me and came along and nurtured it.”

That nurturing led to a nomination for Chattanooga Valley Elementary School’s Teacher of the Year by her peers. After she received that award in February, Hulse then had to write an essay outlining her teaching philosophy and style. Based on that, she was chosen to be observed and interviewed by a panel of retired teachers.

“If anything,” Hulse noted, “this recognition has affirmed how I teach.” Usually, she noted, she is not comfortable talking about her strengths, but winning the award “has made me more comfortable saying, ‘yeah, I like doing this and I’m good at it.’”

While usually nervous in front of adults, Hulse said that when she was observed by the panel, she was determined not to do anything different, even if she felt like using one of the funny voices that her students appreciate or singing to them, and it worked. “It gave me a peace that I’m here where I need to be and doing what I need to be doing,” she said.

The singing and funny voices aren’t just for laughs though. “I teach in funny voices because it really draws [the students] in,” Hulse noted. “When I’m teaching, my goal is that it connects with the kids.”

She calls this relational teaching. “I get to know the student’s families, their interests, and their hobbies,” she said. This allows her to relate what she is teaching to the students lives, making it more relevant for them.

The emotional strain that comes with that style of teaching surprised Hulse. “I never realized how much you give away by having all of these children in your life,” she noted. In the close-knit community of the classroom, she soon realized that “you hurt when your students hurt and you celebrate when they celebrate.”

Hulse noted that she didn’t come by this style of teaching all on her own. “I am able to view my children as whole individuals because Covenant (College) did that for me.”

During her senior year at Covenant, her mother underwent treatment for breast cancer. The professors there put Hulse and her mother first, before the academics. They worked with her to make college manageable during that time. “That’s what I bring into the classroom,” she said, “the kindness and love that Covenant showed me.”

Although Hulse’s grandparents and aunt and uncle worked in public schools, teaching wasn’t something she envisioned as a career. “I have always liked working with kids, but I didn’t know how I would end up using that,” she noted. Her first college education class had her working in a kindergarten classroom, “and it was ‘yep, this is what I want to do,’” she said.

Even after earning Teacher of the Year so early in her career, Hulse is not ready to retire just yet. “I feel like this gives me the opportunity to be an advocate for the people I work with,” she said. “I hope a lot of doors will open so that I can support people and make a difference for the students.”

One of those opportunities will happen this summer when she serves on the Georgia Milestones Assessment Committee. There, Hulse and the rest of the committee will look over the statewide standardized test scores and make recommendations.

As the teacher of an inclusion classroom, where students who receive special learning services are alongside students who receive regular services, Hulse has a desire to help the test be a better representation of what all the students have learned. “I want all students to walk away knowing what they have mastered this year,” she said.

Hulse also hopes to find a way to influence education legislation. “I want the people making decisions for schools to understand what a teacher does every day,” she said. “I want more educators to influence the bills and laws being passed.” In her ideal world, “an educator would be standing there, saying ‘this is what the reality of teaching is’ to the people in the legislature.”

This summer, Hulse will also begin her master’s degree program in reading instruction. She doesn’t have any designs to leave the classroom, though, noting that “I just love these kids and I love getting to be a part of their lives.”

Even after being chosen as Teacher of the Year, Hulse is quick to note that she is only one in a group of amazing teachers at Chattanooga Valley Elementary and in Walker County. “There’s so much good happening in our public school system,” she noted. “There are so many good people dedicating their lives to the betterment of children.”

Carrie Chandler is a reporter for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga., and The Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga.