BY CLYDE HUGHES, AC JosepH Media
WILLINGBORO – Sherrie Yvette Wilkins remembers crying after she was named Burlington County Teacher of Year last year, but its tears of joy caused by someone she didn’t even know.
Wilkins, who taught at Alexander Denbo School in Browns Mill at the time, won the honor to represent the county and received a card in the mail who saw a newspaper story about her selection.
“I checked my school mailbox one morning after the story on me earning the honor of County Teacher of the Year was published in the Burlington County Times and I had a beautiful card from a fellow African-American teacher that made me cry,” Wilkins told Front Runner New Jersey last week.
“She stated that although, she didn’t know me personally, she was so proud of me because in her 40 years of teaching she had never seen anyone of color earn the title of county teacher of the year. We know that there’s a disparity of African-American teachers here in New Jersey. They are rarely recognized in this light so for me it was important to me to be myself.”
Wilkins, who now teaches at Stackhouse Elementary School in Pemberton Township, said the experience has been one of the kind and it gave her a platform to talk about importance of education.
“Honestly I was excited for whatever the opportunity offered,” Wilkins, who is married to fellow teacher and renowned eclectic jazz musician Alan Wilkins. “The most exciting experiences were those that I got a chance to meet with tons of passionate teachers across the state.
“It was an opportunity to share with a few news outlets the stories of amazing teachers just like me and to bring a sense of pride for the profession and the teachers serving in my own district and county. I loved the opportunities that came about that allow me to speak publicly and teach workshops or lead roundtable discussions with like-minded professionals,” she continued.
In the Burlington County Times last year, Denbo principal Brett Thorpe said that Wilkins had proved herself to a one of a kind teacher.
“She’s dynamic,” Thorpe told the newspaper. “She’s constantly building relationships with her students. She develops relationships with the parents. I really like the energy she brings to the classroom.”
Wilkins told Front Runner New Jersey.com that she takes pride in building those relationships.
“I remember growing up and things happening that were beyond my control as a child,” Wilkins said. “Most times school was a safe haven for me. So I want our students to feel safe with me and to find comfort while in my care. My relationships with my students and families are vital to me. Many of them carry beyond the 180 days of the school year and to me, this is what life and leadership in the educational field is about.”
When the school day is over with, Wilkins’s teaching is not done. She has taken up homeschooling her young daughter, who is a national-level gymnast pursing a dream of possibly making the U.S. Olympic team one day.
“She was reading by 18 months because I took time to teach her,” Wilkins said. “I have always been her first teacher. She loves school. The only reason we have decided to homeschool is because she is a gymnast who competes competitively. At 10, she’s convinced me to let her pursue her dream of landing a spot on an Olympic Gymnastics team someday.
“So with that dream comes hardcore training. She loves it. She trains as the gym full-time and in the evening I teach her. She calls me, Mrs. Mommy during our homeschool time. She’s so cute and determined. She recently launched her own business called, Gymnasts Who Love God at www.gymanstswholoveGod.com.
Faith has always been important to Wilkins and she has been able to connect with it through poetry. That eventually turned into a book of poetry titled “Selah: Stop and Think,” which is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, among other locations.
“Poetry is my ministry because some people won’t step foot in a church but, they’ll listen to a poem,” Wilkins said. “Words are powerful vessels and can move one to change or heal from past hurts. It’s important for me to stay directly connected with God and allow Him to love me because then I am capable of loving my students with that same God-like love that brings such a peace.
“Ultimately, we all want peace in our lives, even my students. God is the one who brings that peace that surpasses our understanding. So me praying in my classroom before my students arrive is important. Praying for our students with my husband, who is also a teacher and happens to be Hedgepeth Williams School of the Arts current Teacher of the Year, is very vital.”
If that was not enough, Wilkins developed the Best of Me character development program for children and Open Mic events.
” I’ve been writing in a journal since I was 13,” Wilkins said. “I actually still have that journal. Writing and more particularly poetry brings voice to those who sometimes feel silenced. Best of Me came first. I noticed that there was a lack of time in the school day to really focus on character development, especially with high stakes testing riddling our schools and curriculum.
“Children need to learn to be resilient. So I started Best of Me; an eight-week character development program for the hearts of our youth. It’s a safe space to come because sometimes life is hard and we need a little bit of help. This program is like another ‘baby’ of mine. It’s important to me. I watch children bloom and apply life skills to become joyful and manage stress. I am looking to expand and bring Best of Me to other locations outside of Pemberton.”
“My open mic, Spoken Words for You is simply a platform to give the youth an opportunity to speak. Its purpose is to ignite neurons to spark change,” she added.
While her time as Burlington County Teacher of the Year is coming to an end, one can expect Wilkins to continue to make an impact inside and outside the classroom.
Photos Courtesy of Sherrie Yvette Wilkins