Jeff Norris, who teaches sixth grade math at Oak Mountain Middle School, has an undeniable excitement when he talks about education and teachers in Alabama. Now, as Alabama’s Teacher of the Year, he gets to share his passion every day beyond his regular classroom.
He grew up in Jasper, in Walker County, and earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Alabama; a master’s degree in gifted education from South Alabama; and a second master’s degree in instructional leadership and an education specialist degree in teacher leadership, both from Montevallo. He has used those educational experiences in a variety of roles, starting out as a classroom teacher, and eventually moving into administration as an assistant principal and principal at the elementary school level.
During COVID-19, he decided to reprioritize his passion and step back into the classroom to teach again. He loved being an administrator and felt he was successful but felt called to be back with the students.
His wife, Sarah, is also an educator, and her parents were both educators. Their children, 17 and 15, are classic “teachers’ kids,” who love meeting people and love learning, too. We asked him to talk about his experience so far this year as Alabama’s Teacher of the Year, and about his approach to working with students and fellow educators. – Allison Law
In your role as Teacher of the Year, you’re sort of an ambassador for education in Alabama. Talk about that.
I think people are under the assumption that the state teacher of the year is the best teacher in Alabama. I try to take away that perception. I always tell people, I really am just an ambassador, a representative of all the great teachers of Alabama. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, or speak more wisdom than any other great teacher I’ve encountered. But I do get the chance to empower teachers. I’m kind of like this self-professed hype man for teachers in Alabama. I kind of like that term. I laugh about it, but I take it very seriously.
There’s so much hard work that goes into teaching. Anything I can do to remind teachers how awesome it is and how exciting it is and how much of a difference they make, that’s what I want to do. That’s chief description number one. Inspire and empower teachers in Alabama to continue making a difference.
Number two, I spend a lot of my time traveling and talking to different school districts. I lead a lot of professional development around the state. I get to visit a lot of classrooms and see all kinds of neat things that are happening, and ultimately share those ideas. As I go along in my journey, I get to compile those things and share them with other people, and ideas I have along the way.
What have you learned so far in your travels around the state?
One of the things I tell people all the time, we are in the life changing business. I think that teaching is one of those few careers where we literally have an opportunity to impact other people’s lives significantly each day. So getting the chance to see that in action around our state is really powerful.
One of my teaching philosophies is that teachers make a difference. I try to make someone else’s life better. But it’s been great to see examples of that all over our state. To see others who are as excited and passionate about teaching and students as I am has been wonderful.
Do you look forward to going back to Oak Mountain Middle, after your term is over at the end of this school year?
I was really blessed because the principal at my school let me keep my classroom – it can be used for other purposes this year, so I didn’t have to give up my classroom. I’ve been able to bring teachers to Oak Mountain Middle and see instructors in progress, then go back to my classroom and talk about it. That’s been a neat opportunity. I’ve been able to stay in the local building and see “my kids” throughout the year. I try my hardest to stay in touch with the students.
That’s what I miss the most. I’ve loved every moment of what I’m doing. I’m trying to capitalize on that. I’ve enjoyed getting to talk to different groups, seeing all the things that are happening, sharing that knowledge, and sharing with people. I really have been so busy this fall that I haven’t had a chance to sit back and think about that yet. I think in some ways I’ve tried not to, because it will make my heart miss my kids even more not being there day to day. So I will look forward to being with them again. But I love what I’m doing now.