To Kristine Holland and Ann Lowrey Merrill, their jobs are more than teaching lessons, and their students more than faces at desks.
Their mission is to find and unlock the potential in each child, empowering these future leaders to impact the world.
Although they work in very different classrooms, Alexander Middle School’s Holland and PACE Center’s Merrill both give their all to reach and inspire students.
For their excellence in the classroom, the two Pearland Independent School District educators recently claimed the district’s 2016 Elementary and Secondary Teacher of the Year Awards.
What started as serving as her grandmother’s Sunday school teaching assistant has turned into a lifelong career for Alexander Middle School’s Holland.
From her childhood on, Holland found everyday life — from TV commercials to magazine articles — bursting with teaching possibilities and looked forward to having her own classroom where she could share her passion for learning.
This year, Holland celebrates nearly 25 years as a teacher.
One of her biggest achievements is selling the joy of books to reluctant readers. She remembers one such fifth-grader.
“I worked diligently to find a book that matched his interest in survival skills and found ‘Earthquake Terror.’ He read this book and every other book by Peg Kehret in the library that year, and by May, he proclaimed reading his favorite subject,” she said.
Holland’s teaching revolves around building students’ confidence, creating problem solvers and inspiring deeper-level thinking skills.
She accomplishes this by asking questions and giving students time to process and respond.
“My aim is for students to see themselves as problem solvers and appreciate the journey of building deep understanding. While wait time is necessary, they can show uncertainty with the silence. Over the school year, my students become more relaxed as they realize I question to guide them,” Holland said.
She wants students to see her as a learner too as she models thinking aloud and makes discoveries alongside her class.
Although she constantly encounters new classroom methods, Holland believes teachers should keep only those that actually work for their students and will equip them for the future.
“Our ultimate goal should be to prepare students for a society of growth. We might not know what we will be teaching 10 years from now, but we know how to bring out the best in students. We know how to challenge them and how to instill lifelong learning,” she said.
Holland holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Houston-Clear Lake.
PACE Center’s Merrill attributes her good grades in elementary school not only to encouraging teachers but also to her afterschool pastime of lining up toys in front of a chalkboard.
“You never learn a subject as well as when you teach it,” she said.
Influenced by her mom, who dreamed of becoming a school librarian, Merrill grew up loving everything surrounding books and learning.
In high school, a psychology teacher’s invitation to teach a chapter in lieu of taking an exam also revealed her passion for teaching.
Merrill, who has taught for six years, finds her true fulfillment in motivating at-risk students.
At PACE, she and her colleagues provide a safety net of tutoring, nurture and encouragement to help students who have not succeeded in a traditional environment pass their exams, graduate and achieve post-graduation goals.
Although establishing clear consequences for misbehavior and missed assignments, Merrill reassures her students that each new day is a clean state.
“This frees them from cycles of self-fulfilling prophecies and labels placed on them by self or others,” she said.
Merrill deals with students from all walks of life. Some may be their family’s breadwinner, some living in shelters and still others caring for children of their own.
In addition to offering a compassionate ear, she has stayed after school to help students whose parents spoke little English complete homework and allowed a student who provided for a family of five to leave school a few minutes early to get to his job.
“Because I had flexible teachers who understood that students’ lives are not always easy outside school, I show my students the same grace,” she said.
Ultimately, she focuses not on tests or curriculum but on each student’s value.
“My greatest reward in teaching is getting to know these kids: they are not a set of problems but divinely-appointed vessels of potential. My primary job is to help them not only find that potential but also their worth,” she said.
Merrill holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Maryland in Heidelberg, Germany.
Each year, Pearland ISD schools select a nominee for the district award. A panel of judges then selects an elementary and secondary winner to advance in the Texas Teacher of the Year competition.
Holland and Merrill were announced as the district winners during the annual service awards celebration in May.
In addition, Holland was recently named a finalist for Region IV Teacher of the Year.