Four years ago, Cecilia Ice-Mays wasn’t even an educator. Now, this second-grade teacher from C.E. Hughes Elementary has been named one of the seven most inspiring educators in America.
Sponsored by Hostess Wonder Bread, the “7 Wonders of America” competition honors seven inspiring teachers for their dedication to children around the country.
“A friend of mine found out about the competition on the last day of nominations,” said Cecilia, “so he quickly wrote an essay on why he believed I was an inspiring teacher. I had no idea he’d done it until I won.”
Cecilia’s friend wrote about his admiration for the effortless way she handles her class, as well as how inspired he is by her refusal to lower expectations for her students simply because they are from a high poverty area.
“I’m truly humbled by this recognition,” said Cecilia. “Especially because in my opinion, all teachers are inspiring.”
A former researcher for the University of Chicago, Cecelia first became drawn to teaching after the events of 9/11.
“What happened that day changed my focus,”” she said. “That tragedy made me realize that before I left this earth, I wanted to give something back to my community.”
So she entered Teach for America, completing her training in 2008 and intending to teach adults or high school students. But she soon became convinced that if she was to make a true impact, she would need to reach younger children.
“It’s certainly a challenge,” said Cecilia of her decision to teach primary grades, “but my students amaze me every day. I find that children are like water. They rise to the level you set for them.”
Cecilia believes that the harder she pushes her students, the harder they’ll try. But she admits that raising the bar for them can be a challenge in and of itself.
“As teachers, we know some of the difficult things that are happening in these children’s lives, so it can be hard to maintain high expectations for them,” she said. “But I try hard not to let their backgrounds affect how I see them. I’m aware of their situations, but I don’t let them sway me.”
Consequently, Cecilia has one of the most engaged, well-disciplined classrooms at C.E. Hughes.
“Her students have wonderful manners,” said Hughes principal Lucille Howard. “They speak politely and are very respectful of each other and of adults. That’s something I notice every time I walk into Cecilia’s classroom.”
As one of the seven most inspiring teachers in America, Cecilia was awarded 25 tablets for use in her classroom, and was given a trip to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where she taught a class to her students in real time via simulcast. The class had recently been learning about outer space, so to help them get a visual picture of what they’d been reading about, Cecilia taught from alongside a rocket ship that had traveled to the moon. She also introduced her students to an astronaut and encouraged them to ask him questions. She ended the lesson by promising to bring each student a container of dehydrated ice cream.
“They were quite literally over the moon,” said Cecilia. “Although to be honest, I think what impressed them the most was that I was on TV.”
The administration, faculty, students and parents of C.E. Hughes, which will act as a welcoming school this fall, are proud and excited to have one of their own selected as among the most inspiring teachers in America.
“Cecilia is such an asset to our school,” said Principal Howard. “I can’t even begin to say what she’s brought to our students in terms of knowledge, life experience, and literacy. But more importantly than that, she treats the children like a family, and teaches them that they must respect and care for each other every day.”