An emotional Amy Griffith Hill struggled Monday to find the right words to describe what happened to her.
On a gloomy day when she was teaching her students about the importance of reading, the Oak Park Middle School teacher got a surprise visit from Decatur City Schools Superintendent Ed Nichols.
"I'm not Publishers Clearing House, but I want to say congratulations," Nichols said before telling Hill she had been selected as Decatur City Schools' Secondary Teacher of the Year.
With her students clapping and between hugs, the veteran teacher who is a cancer survivor finally said: "Wow. I was speechless for a while."
A similar scene happened 20 minutes earlier at Benjamin Davis Elementary, where Shelley Hughes was tapped as Elementary Teacher of the Year.
"We have a lot of good teachers in our system, and these are two of the best," Nichols said.
The two will represent Decatur City Schools in the state teacher-of-the year competition.
Hill, 46, thought her teaching career was coming to an end Feb. 27, 2004, when she walked out of Oak Park and went to a doctor's office.
"I was feeling so bad, had bruises all over my body and was exhausted," she said.
A hemotologist diagnosed her with cancer. The disease kept her out of the classroom for 18 months.
"I am forever grateful for what this community did for me and my family while I was out," she said, adding that she was accepting the award for all of those who helped her during her fight with cancer.
Hill continued: "The central office called almost every day, and teachers donated sick leave."
Oak Park Principal Ashley McIntyre called Hill a teacher's teacher.
"She cares about her students and is willing to go the extra mile to make sure they succeed," he said.
"She's also willing to do the same for this school and is a person I go to for advice."
Benjamin Davis Principal David Kross made similar comments about Hughes, a Decatur High graduate who has worked a little more than eight years for the school system.
"She has the unique ability to develop individualized plans for all her students," Kross said. "She builds on her students' strengths and works on their weaknesses."
Like Hill, Hughes, 47, also was emotional when Nichols told her about the award.
"I'm shocked, but this is awesome," she said.
Hughes said she knew from the time she was a fifth-grader that she wanted to teach. She said her family "moved across the railroad tracks" to near Eastwood Elementary School.
Hughes was a stranger in the school, but teacher Mary Francis Crawford "made me fall in love with school."
She said Crawford showed her attention she had never gotten from a teacher.
"She talked to me at recess, and that made me feel special," Hughes said. "She was also the first teacher I felt comfortable approaching."
After earning degrees in education from Alabama and UAB, Hughes worked eight years at a private school before getting a job at Walter Jackson Elementary. She came to Benjamin Davis in 2010.
Hill, a nationally board-certified teacher, has degrees from the University of North Alabama, Alabama and Alabama A&M.
She, too, grew up wanting to teach, but at one point in college wanted to become a missionary.
Hill said she realized that teaching and mission work is about the same because "you have to love working with kids to do either."
After her husband got a job with the Alabama Baptist Children's Home in Decatur, she got a job at Oak Park.
Family: Married with three children.
Current position: Second-grade teacher at Benjamin Davis Elementary.
Experience: Private school teacher for eight years; teacher in Decatur City Schools for eight years at Walter Jackson Elementary and Benjamin Davis Elementary.
Education: Bachelors of Science in education from the University of Alabama in 1988; Master of Arts in education from the University of Alabama-Birmingham in 1991.
Family: Married with two children.
Current position: Eighth-grade language arts teacher at Oak Park Middle School.
Experience: Taught English one year at private school; 23 years as language arts/reading teacher at Oak Park.
Education: Bachelor's degree in English from the University of North Alabama in 1987; master's degree in English education from UNA in 1989; Educational specialist degree from the University of Alabama in 2001; Reading specialist certificate from Alabama A&M University in 2002.
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