It’s been a busy year for Berkeley County’s Erin Sponaugle, West Virginia’s 2014 Teacher of the Year. Aside from teaching fifth grade at Tomahawk Intermediate School near Hedgesville, West Virginia, Sponaugle has traveled across the state and country representing her profession.
“It’s been life changing and life defining," Sponaugle said.
“When this first happened back in October it appears to be an award and you assume that it is, but you soon come to the realization that it’s not just an award but it’s going to become a full time life," she said.
That full time life has included attending and being recognized at the State of the State address in Charleston, West Virginia, a trip to Arizona to attend the National Teacher of the Year Conference and going to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, where she met writer and West Virginia native Homer Hickam.
Meeting President Obama
In May Sponaugle, along with the teachers of the year from the other states, visited the White House. Sponaugle says the ceremony usually takes place in the Rose Garden but rainy weather forced everything indoors.
“Well they had to move the entire thing, bummer, into the White House,” Sponaugle said. “We had 20 to 30 minutes to roam around the green blue and red rooms and then they had the ceremony in the East room and we got to walk out the front doors of the white house which was amazing.”
Sponaugle has not been traveling alone during all these trips. Her constant companion has been a stuffed bear puppet she calls Berkeley, after Berkeley County. Sponaugle takes photographs of Berkeley everywhere she goes.
“I’ve taken pictures of him and he writes a blog about all the experiences. It’s really me doing the writing," Sponaugle confides, "bears aren’t that talented."
“He talks about all the places he’s been for kids so they can see what this journey is about and learn more about their state,” she said.
Sponaugle took photos of Berkeley at Space Camp, the White House, and the Vice President’s house with Jill Biden, who is also a teacher. He’s also traveled throughout West Virginia with Sponaugle including a visit to the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, West Virginia.
“That’s something we don’t have in the Eastern Panhandle and that our students know very little about,” she said. “They don’t realize coal is a huge industry in this state and supports many people and many families.”
The Sugar Maple Friends
Berkeley is not Sponaugle’s only stuffed animal companion. She has a whole collection of puppets she calls the Sugar Maple Friends that represent all the state symbols, including a butterfly she named Morgan the Monarch, a cardinal called Clay, a trout names Brook and a honey bee named Harrison.
“All of their names are after the counties in West Virginia,” she said. “The entire thing that I do is very educational and it’s a way to make them feel good about where they live.”
When Sponaugle’s duties as Teacher of the Year end in October, she plans to write and illustrate a children’s book featuring Berkeley the Bear and his friends that she hopes will be exciting for students to read and will draw them into the beauty of West Virginia and the country.
In the meantime, she looks forward to getting back to the classroom when school starts in Berkeley County in mid-August, and to fulfilling the last couple of months as teacher of the year.