The Learning Curve

Meet five teachers who are helping set the standard for excellence in education. 

Ashley Andersen

36, 3rd Grade, Sunset Park Elementary School, 10 years teaching

The best thing about your career choice?

The most rewarding aspect of my career is my impact on people’s lives and the relationships I’ve built. I stay in touch with many former students, and witnessing their growth brings me joy. I will always consider them as “my kids.”

The biggest challenge facing teachers today?

The biggest challenge for teachers today is the adults, not the kids. Teachers are not treated as the professionals they are. Teachers are constantly questioned and criticized. We’ve put in many hours of professional development on top of our college degrees.

The biggest challenge for public schools today?

The biggest challenge for public schools today would be teacher retention. Teachers can only handle so much before they realize they are worth more.

This was my last year teaching. I have loved this career, but this chapter is ending. The parents and adults have made it hard to continue. I need a break to boost my mental health. My husband and I will be moving into a Camper Van and traveling around the United States. I will most likely return to the field of teaching in a different capacity. For now, I’m focusing on me and learning more about this amazing country!


Jessica Stokes

35, 9th-12th Grade, Journalism & Digital Video Technology, West Orange High School, 10 years teaching

The biggest challenge for teachers today?

A combination of two things. First, the pay. This is my eighth year teaching in Florida and yet I currently rent a one-bedroom because I cannot afford to purchase a home or even rent one. I constantly feel stressed about money. The second is the pressure to perform for my students. It is no longer the days of just teaching the curriculum, now it’s the expectations to play games, have fun, have no work days, and give easy grades. Teaching an elective subject, I am forced to keep my numbers up, otherwise I am out of a job. Students have hundreds of options for electives and are unwilling to choose ones that sound difficult.

Proudest teacher moment:

I give out gifts to the seniors each year and one year, I had seed packets made that had a little saying on it about being thankful to watch them grow. Recently, one of my students reached with a photo showing how she had planted those seeds and gave me an update on her life.

The biggest challenge for public schools today?

Life after COVID. It is just vastly different. Students are behind, they struggle socially more now than ever, they were given grades they didn’t have to earn for almost two years, and now are unwilling to put in the effort.


Cary Hunter

51, 3rd Grade, Atwater Bay Elementary,
5 years teaching

If you could give one piece of advice to future teachers, what would it be?

Become a teacher for the right reasons. Teaching is tough work with long hours and no compensation for all of the extra time or money spent. If you enjoy making a difference in people’s lives (it feels like you are getting paid),then this is the right career choice for you. Helping families and elevating children makes me feel like what I do matters every day.

Who has the biggest impact on the quality of education in West Orange?

Elected officials, school boards, administration, and/or parents. Parents and taxpayers can be very influential in affecting policy and prioritizing budgetary allocations. The less we pay for materials, new buildings, improvements, and teacher salaries, the poorer the quality will be of what we get in return.

Biggest challenge facing teachers today?

Supporting ourselves financially while paying out of pocket for classroom supplies and trying to pay off the expensive loans that helped us get our teaching license.


Mark Smith

48, 9th–12th Grades, Mathematics, Horizon High School, 19 years teaching and 22 years in education

Why did you become a teacher?

I used to be an accountant but wanted a career that was aligned with more of my interests, so I started coaching college basketball as an assistant and met my wife through my work as a paraprofessional at a high school. After meeting my wife, I wanted a career that allowed me to be around her and the family we were planning on starting. Teaching offered me this opportunity and allowed me to be around amazing young students who want to better themselves.

If I ruled the school, I’d:

Support the staff, get to know the students to show them the paths to success that are available to them based on the choices they make, and get the support of the community around us, because if I’ve learned anything from High School Musical, it is “we’re all in this together.” Luckily, our school does a good job of this, so I don’t need to “rule the school.”

How can elected officials, school boards, and/or administration best improve teaching conditions?

Focus on working with teachers to improve school culture and teacher morale. The best administrators and district personnel I’ve worked with take the time to listen and problem-solve with teachers without talking down to them and setting ultimatums. They do this during the normal school day by going out of their way to interact with the staff and have an honest understanding of the pulse of the school/classroom.


Heather Smith

45, 9th-12th Grades, Exceptional Student Education, Horizon High School, 19th year teaching and 22 years as an educator

Why did you become a teacher?

I enjoy learning and helping others. Learning was not always easy for me. I worked hard in school but struggled with assessments. It wasn’t until college that I was able to figure out the best ways for myself to study. I hope to be able to help students understand how they learn best and help them to think about and plan for their future.

What’s the biggest challenge facing teachers today?

There are a lot of politics in teaching, and I find that to be the most challenging aspect of the job. I entered education to help others but didn’t realize how political education was at the time. Teaching has many challenging things, but it can be a rewarding career choice. Nothing compares to the feeling you get from watching a student work toward and achieve a goal.

Who has the biggest impact on the quality of education in West Orange: elected officials, school boards, administration and/or parents?

Parents are their children’s first teachers, so they have the biggest impact on their child’s education right away. I think sometimes parents underestimate the impact they have on their children’s education. Parents can support elected officials who have their child’s best interest in mind and can communicate with teachers, administrators, and school board members about concerns

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