Jonathan Valley Elementary School fifth grade teacher Jon Serenius has been named the Haywood County Schools 2019 Teacher of the Year.

“I think from a distance, the thing you notice about Jon is that he’s very consistent and very unassuming,” Nolte said at the Teacher of the Year banquet held on September 6. “He just comes in and gets it every single day with very good results. He’s a hidden gem among Haywood County Schools’ teachers.”

Every year, each of the district’s 15 schools selects a Teacher of the Year. A selection committee is then tasked with choosing the district-wide Teacher of the Year after reviewing applications and visiting each teacher’s classroom.

Serenius was selected as the district-wide winner, and runner ups were Kendra Plemmons from Bethel Middle School and Layna Cope of Tuscola High School.

Teaching is a second career for Serenius. After receiving a degree in biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Charlotte native moved to Haywood County and began taking photos for The Mountaineer.

“Photography was fun for a while, but it became increasingly less satisfying being the observer instead of the doer,” Serenius explained. “I was often sent to schools to take pictures, and that’s when the idea of teaching first entered my mind.”

That thought never left him. Serenius’ wife, Kim, also felt a calling to teach. After seeing her succeed as a teacher at Clyde Elementary School, Serenius said he was even more inspired to pursue a career in education.

Serenius went back to school at Western Carolina University (WCU) to get his teaching degree and accepted a job offer as a first-grade teacher at Jonathan Valley Elementary School in 1996. Since then, he has taught hundreds of Jonathan Valley students in first, second, fourth, and fifth grades. Serenius has remained a fifth grade teacher for the past 14 years.

During his tenure, he went back to school once again to earn his Master of Arts in Elementary Education from WCU and became National Board certified as a middle childhood generalist.

While Serenius may no longer be behind the camera lens, he finds creativity in teaching.

After scouring the internet, books, and free resources for inspiration, Serenius puts together his own completely unique lesson plans.

“I consider myself a collector and more importantly a creator of ideas and activities that I mold into units of learning for specific students,” Serenius said. “I always think about how I can explain things in memorable ways.”

Choices, engagement, and significance are at the center of each one of Serenius’ custom-made lessons for his students. Serenius believes that his students perform best when they have some level of control at school and are able to make choices.

He also questions whether his presentation of the lesson is something he would want to participate in.

“It’s important for the lesson to be engaging,” Serenius explained. “I wouldn’t make my students do anything that I wouldn’t be interested in doing.”

Lastly, Serenius strives to make sure students know they are significant and that their ideas are important.

“I’m always telling my students that the day won’t be as great without them in here,” Serenius said. “It’s really important that they know they aren’t invisible at school and that I care about them.”

All the long hours Serenius puts into his profession are not only evident from consistently high test scores, but also the smiling faces of students as the enter his classroom each day.

It is not uncommon for students to complain about having to leave Serenius’ classroom.

“I know I’ve had a good class when students have been working for an hour and a half and are surprised to see it’s already time for them to leave,” he said with a smile. “It’s such a good feeling to see them excited about science and eagerly explaining concepts and information they’ve learned.”

Serenius is responsible for teaching science to the school’s 75 fifth graders. Fifth grade science curriculum covers everything from the water cycle, to ecosystems, to the human body.

He also incorporates writing in his lessons to build writing skills and reinforce science concepts. During the year, his students will complete a research paper and an opinion writing piece.

“I’m so lucky to work in a school where science is embraced and given a lot of importance,” Serenius said. “I have a to-do list on the board for each day because every minute of instruction is important to me.”

With an increased focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in elementary schools, Serenius believes it is more important than ever to creatively present information to students.

“Mr. Serenius is a fun teacher with a bright imagination,” fifth grader Shelby Knight said. “My favorite experiment we’ve done this year was finding the melting point of butter using water and a candle.”

Serenius chuckled as he explained the experiment that helped students visualize states of matter.  Students put a small amount of butter in a test tube then inserted the test tube into a beaker of water. The beaker of water was heated over a candle. As soon as the butter melted, students removed the tube from the water and checked the temperature with a thermometer.

“Anything with candles and fire gets students vested in the lesson,” Serenius said.

Serenius could retire in five years; the longtime teacher said as long as he keeps loving his job, he plans to stay in the classroom.

“The kids at Jonathan Valley are such a joy to teach and really are a great group,” Serenius said. “If you can’t be happy teaching in Haywood County, you really can’t be happy teaching anywhere.”

Submitted by: Carrie Sutton, HCS Foundation