Kristen Bagwell had one goal in mind while she was an undergraduate student in the University of Georgia College of Education: To become an English teacher.
But today, just three years after starting her first job teaching English and composition at Alcovy High School in Newton County, Georgia, she also serves as the school's English-language arts department chair, the school's English-language arts content specialist for the district, and she also coordinates career-track content with elementary and middle schools as Alcovy's career readiness teacher leader.
Now Bagwell has earned another title: Newton County Teacher of the Year.
She will now go on to represent Newton County in the Georgia Teacher of the Year program, and as part of the award also receives $1,000, a crystal vase, a three-month free car rental from Covington Ford, a $500 Kroger gift card and a $100 gift basket.
Bagwell, who graduated in 2012 with a dual degree in English and English education, landed a job with the Newton County School District before she had even graduated. Today, she teaches American literature and composition in addition to managing her 14-teacher department.
"I make sure their lesson plans are where they need to be and I work with our academic coaches to make sure they're where they need to be," she said, acknowledging that she entered the real world without a specific plan for what her classroom would look like — only that she wanted to emulate the mentor teachers who inspired her.
"This is the only thing I've ever wanted to do. I always wanted to be a high school English teacher," she said. "I didn't know what that would look like when I got out of college, so when I got out of college I just started working."
She still keeps in touch with one of her first professors in the College of Education, Peter Smagorinsky, and contributes to a longitudinal study he is conducting on teacher education programs.
Smagorinsky, Distinguished Professor of English Education in the Department of Language and Literacy Education, said for a school of Alcovy's size, it's almost unheard of for a teacher two years into his or her career to be named department chair. "To me, it speaks to her very unusual maturity and wisdom, which can take years for most people to reach," he added.
Bagwell was named Alcovy's teacher of the year in May, and throughout the summer wrote essays and took part in interviews to be a county finalist. When she was named in the county's top three, the selection committee spent a day going from school to school, watching the teachers in action.
This she treated like any other day, Bagwell said.
"I teach what I do every day, and if you come into my room, great—if not, great. It doesn't look any different," she said. "I didn't create this elaborate activity that wasn't aligned with my curriculum; it was just another day in class."
She holds her students to a high standard, she said. And as her first students near graduation, she said she feels an emotional tie to their success.
"I believe you can always grow. A lesson can always be better," she said. During the Teacher of the Year interview process, she said she was asked about her greatest accomplishment to education. "My accomplishment is my students."
"I had somebody ask me yesterday, 'Do you have any kids?'" she added. "I started to say no, but then said, 'Wait, I have 400 kids.' My first class is going to graduate at the end of this year and it's a little emotional. I have high expectations for them. And I tell them, if I didn't think you could do better, I wouldn't push you so hard—but I know you can."