Aubree Garcia and Zoey Peña sat at a table, each twirling a pink-and-white lily between their fingers as they patiently waited for their teacher to give them instructions. The second-grade students were in the middle of learning about pollination when their teacher, Crystal McKnight, provided each student with a flower.
“Now, go ahead and feel this part,” McKnight said, pointing to the stamen of the lily.
Aubree’s eyes lit up as dust from the pollen stayed on her fingers.
It’s moments like this, where students are able to experience science for themselves, that make McKnight deserving of being named the Victoria school district’s elementary teacher of the year, her students said.
“We learn new things every time we go to science with Ms. McKnight. And we get to have fun while we learn, too,” Zoey, 7, said. “It was so weird to feel the parts of the flower, but it was fun.”
McKnight, a science enrichment teacher at Rowland Elementary School, and Amanda Heinold, a theater teacher at Victoria East High School, were named teachers of the year for the elementary and secondary divisions.
The two were chosen from a pool of the 25 total teachers of the year from each VISD campus. The teachers are nominated by other teachers, and the winners are announced of the Teacher of the Year Banquet, which took place Feb. 25.
McKnight, who has been a teacher for 21 years, said being named Rowland Elementary’s teacher of the year was an unexpected surprise.
She has worked in almost all elementary grade levels, and as a special education and as an instructional coach for new teachers. McKnight has also presented at conferences and district staff development workshops.
Science is a subject she enjoys teaching because so much of the topic can be experienced firsthand by students, she said. The enrichment portion of her curriculum includes experiments or hands-on learning with the subject such as pollination.
“I feel like science is an environment where you can do well because it is non-threatening and engaging,” McKnight, 48, said. “The kids are learning about the world and how it works.”
As a child, she was more of a wallflower, McKnight said, and it was her teachers who made her feel empowered and comfortable. She hopes she has created the same environment for her students through science.
“I look for affirmation through them. I love hearing them saying how much they enjoyed an experiment and class. When they say those kinds of things, I know I’m doing my part,” she said.
At Victoria East High School, Heinold’s classroom is an auditorium filled with different characters. Heinold has taught both English and theater and has taught middle school and high school grade levels. She started teaching theater as her main subject when East and West high schools were built.
Heinold said education is a profession where children can be encouraged to be more confident in themselves and in their abilities in order to flourish.
“I believe every student can participate and be involved in class – you just have to get them in the right role,” Heinold, 43, said.
In theater, Heinold said, there are so many roles for every student, and so she expects full participation from her students.
Marcus Garza, 16, is in his second year of school theater. The high school sophomore said Heinold is one of the best teachers because she has fun with her job and ensures that her students enjoy learning about theater.
Heinold also helps teach her students about life, he said.
“She’s told us before, ‘If you’re struggling with something, get past the mental block that you can’t do it because you can,’” Marcus said. “And that is so true, not just in class but in life, too.”
Heinold found out she was nominated by her peers for teacher of the year, which shocked her, she said.
Both McKnight and Heinold said they are humbled to be chosen as teachers of the year by their peers.
“I work alongside the most amazing group of teachers,” Heinold said. “It’s just such an honor.”
Heinold and McKnight will both move on to the Region III Teacher of the Year selection this spring. Region winners will be selected at the end of July, said Shawna Currie, spokeswoman for the Victoria school district.
“It’s an honor, and I know this is a team job, and so I stand on the shoulders of everyone here,” McKnight said. “We are all great together.”