2018 Teacher of the Year finalist: Amanda Pontifex

This is the third article in a series of profiles about each finalist for Virginia Beach City Public Schools’ 2018 Citywide Teacher of the Year. The citywide winner will be announced at the Teacher of the Year dinner hosted by the Virginia Beach Education Foundation May 4.

Captain of a charter fishing boat in the Florida Keys.

Marine biologist in the Maldives.

These are just two jobs Amanda Pontifex said she would tackle if she could not work as a teacher.

“I love to fish, interact with a variety of people, be on or in the water, explore and understand the interconnectivity of nature, travel and research new things,” expressed the Shelton Park Elementary School fifth-grade teacher and 2018 Teacher of the Year Finalist.

However, the Kentucky native’s love of time on the water is not surpassed by her passion for helping others.

“I’ve always known I was born to help people,” shared Pontifex. “I have always slept better, felt stronger and found myself thankful for any opportunity to help someone accomplish a personal goal.”

The once aspiring nurse, now finds fulfillment helping students and fellow teachers accomplish many personal and professional goals.

Even the parents of Pontifex’s students see that spark.

“As an educator, you are expected to help others to acquire competency and values. Amanda possesses the ability to not only nourish her students to accomplish those goals but to surpass them,” wrote the parents of two former students.

They added their wish that “every teacher was as kind, loving, supportive, engaging and generous” as Pontifex. “She goes above and beyond on all levels – teaching, caring, investing her time and as a mentor.”

Pontifex distinctly remembers her over-the-top enthusiasm as a new educator at Kempsville Meadows Elementary School.

“I was definitely the ‘first year’ teacher that everyone probably laughed at and whispered to each other, ‘ Just let her go. She’ll learn not to transform the entire hallway into the layers of the ocean or tidal marshlands of the [Chesapeake] Bay!’”

That love of water follows her wherever she goes.

Find out more about what the 2018 Teacher of the Year finalist enjoys in her free time or on a perfect day off with her responses to the questions below.

If you could not work as a teacher, which job would you make as your career and why?
If I could not work as a teacher, I would love to be a captain of a charter fishing boat in the Keys or a marine biologist in the Maldives. I love to fish, interact with a variety of people, be on or in the water, explore and understand the interconnectivity of nature, travel and research new things!

What activities are on your bucket list?

  • Having a child of our own
  • Hiking the John Muir trail with my brother and family
  • Doing some sort of mission trip that builds or strengthens schools in need
  • Tour Europe and Asia with limitless funds and time
  • Catch and release a blue marlin
  • Visit New Zealand or go back to Maui for a month or two
  • Be in the same room as Justin Timberlake and remain calm

Describe your perfect day off.
My perfect day off would day off would include:

  • An early morning leisurely sipping coffee and reading on my front porch (Because, let’s be honest, what teacher gets to ever do that?)
  • Getting some exercise with a friend outdoors
  • Packing a cooler and beach bag full of my favorite things while waiting for my friends and family to arrive
  • Packing up the car and driving to the beach with the windows down and great music playing
  • Throwing my megaboom speaker in the sand, playing an amazing playlist and setting up camp
  • Spending the day on the beach laughing, swimming, reading, soaking in every minute
  • Pack up as the sun goes down, cherishing the memories and being a tiny bit sunburnt
  • Coming home, showering with a sun-kissed glow and cooking dinner for everyone
  • Continuing to share laughs on the patio followed by a game night
  • Watching Planet Earth II and drifting off to the sweet sounds of David Attenborough

What or who inspires you, and why?
My students and my FRAMily (friends that are family). They are my why.

What is your favorite quote?
“Teaching and learning should bring joy. How powerful would our world be if we had kids who were not afraid to take risks, who were not afraid to think, and who had a champion? Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”

Describe when or how you knew you wanted to become a teacher.
From a very early age, my entire Christmas list consisted of only items that could be purchased at TAPS. I’ve always known I was born to help people. Whether that be to aide them in overcoming adversity, a physical challenge, be there when moral support is needed or to guide individuals in the right direction. I have always slept better, felt stronger and found myself thankful for any opportunity to help someone accomplish a personal goal. Early on in my collegiate career, I thought that path was going to be through pursuing a career in the nursing field. I spent two years following that path and realized it was a little too emotional for me and I wasn’t really prepared for my first two experiences and observations at the neonatal intensive care unit and a nursing home setting. Still, in my heart, I knew I wanted to be in a position that would satisfy my continued need to help others. My parents wanted me to pursue a law degree or an engineering degree simply for the compensation. Much to their dissatisfaction at the time, I chose to explore the elementary education world and I’m so glad I did as I haven’t looked back since committing to that decision.

Transferring home from Radford University and discontinuing my interest in the nursing program was a huge decision for me. I came home and immediately enrolled in the Darden School of Education at Old Dominion University (ODU). It is there through my interaction with my peers and the children on campus that I felt inspired, energized and truly felt at home. My time at ODU in the child development center allowed me to practice my craft in a controlled and supervised setting. It allowed me to put my research and readings into practice. The second I saw the connection and alignment between my decisions, instruction and personal connection with each child to their academic success, I was hooked.

After completing my student teaching at Pembroke Meadows with Mrs. Teresa Ritzel, I couldn’t wait to have classroom of my own. I couldn’t wait to empower and engage my own students while building relationships that would last a lifetime. That summer, I marched around to every elementary school that had a posted vacancy with my enormous portfolio in hand. I landed a job at Kempsville Meadows Elementary School with a bathing suit on under my business suit! I’ll never forget talking to Mr. Daughtry and accepting the job through my happy tears. I spent three years at KMES teaching fifth grade – three of the best years of my life. I was definitely the “first year” teacher that everyone probably laughed at and whispered to each other, “Just let her go. She’ll learn not to transform the entire hallway into the layers of the ocean or the tidal marshlands of the Bay!” Being, “Tagged by the Superintendent,” and other awards really did make me feel like all of my hard work was worth it. However, I found more satisfaction on the daily accomplishments of my kids, their letters and cards of appreciation; the look on their face when they learned something new and found the joy of having tenacity and persevering through a tough time; seeing them enjoying reading for the first time; and receiving texts from their parents about them working independently at home for the first time. Those are the accolades and daily motivators that keep me going and consistently allow me to wake up not being able to wait for my feet to hit the ground!

What advice would you give to a new teacher?
If I could give advice to a new teacher it would be to always surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, dream bigger than you, motivate you, work alongside you and not against you, and to learn something new every single day. Also, don’t be afraid to try new and risky things within your classroom. If something fails, learn from it, redesign and execute again. Outside of your comfort zone is where you and your students learn the most. Be present with your students. Love them, empower them, tell them one amazing thing about them to start their day, ensure that you REALLY know them, challenge them and make them laugh. You may be the only one every day that provides that for them. Lastly, be kind and gracious no matter what. We need more of the world.

Speed Round: List as many of your favorites that you care to share. 
Favorite food: Chicken parmesan, Greek salad, poutine, grilled veggies, caper anything
Favorite restaurant: 1608 (their poutine = game changer + local ingredients + sustainable); One Fish Two Fish (their fried oysters will change your life); Zia’s (don’t skip on their New York Strip); Pelons (make it your next Taco Tuesday destination)
Favorite book: “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, “Success Principles” by Jack Canfield
Favorite author: Jack Canfield. I’ve never read a professional book that he has written that I didn’t love.
Favorite song: “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding
Favorite musician: Justin Timberlake (post ‘NSync)
Favorite vacation spot: Maui, Outer Banks, Key West. Anywhere with water!
Favorite sports team: STEELER NATION and anything related to gymnastics.

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