Ava Gentry thinks Amanda Cobb is someone special.
Gentry nominated Cobb, a special education teacher at Fort Zumwalt South Middle, for Mid Rivers Newsmagazine’s 2018 Excellence in Education award. In nominating her, Gentry wrote: “She has really fun ways to do things that make learning fun. I love how she doesn’t yell and how she will help us with anything without getting irritated.”Gentry added that her teacher has great patience and a great personality, is funny, compliments her often and is the “nicest special ed teacher ever.”
“I also like how she does not give out homework. Instead, she helps us with it in class, which is a lot of help,” Gentry said.
On May 18, at the start of a student awards assembly and with students, parents and staff packed into the gymnasium, Cobb was showered with gifts – an iPad, flowers, cake and gift certificates – and a startling surprise. In addition to being named the 2018 “Teacher of the Year,” Cobb was delighted that her husband, Tyler, flew in from a business trip to share in the fun.
“It’s just starting to register,” Cobb said after walking up to the podium to receive her award amid boisterous applause by students and teachers. The award was the culmination of a busy year for Cobb, her first as a full-time teacher.
Cobb, 28, had spent four years as a substitute teacher and para-professional for special education students, largely at South Middle, before being offered a one-year contract at the school. It wasn’t an easy assignment. She ended up with a class of 15 eighth-grade students with special needs and also co-taught social studies, science and English/language arts for a group of students with mixed abilities.
“I think I’ve started with the most exciting group I probably will [ever] have,” she said. “I was so nervous when I started because they had a reputation. You walk in and you’re a first-year teacher; I thought ‘they’re going to eat me alive.’”
However, Cobb said it all “kind of meshed” in the end.
“She’s phenomenal,” said Kathleen Bahan, South Middle’s eighth-grade assistant principal. “If you didn’t know it, you would never guess she was a first-year teacher – very professional and polished. One of her strengths is that she builds relationships with her students. She motivates hard-to-reach students because of the relationships she builds.”
Cobb is at school every day at 6:30 a.m.; her school day ends at 2:30 p.m. but her work does not. That’s because her class requires intense preparation and attention that can chew up her evenings and weekends.
Cobb’s high school graduating class in Warsaw, Missouri, had just 93 students. “We had one stoplight and a Walmart and not much else,” she said. Cobb and her husband attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City and moved the St. Louis area when her husband was hired by The Boeing Company.
Finding a job was difficult, so she completed her master’s degree and substitute taught.
Her comments during a brief interview after the honors announcement struck a chord with Russ Miller, who is bank manager and assistant vice president of Busey Bank of O’Fallon. Busey is one of the sponsors of the annual award along with Bone & Joint Chiropractic Center, Dream Play Recreation and Sylvan Learning Centers.
Miller’s wife was a teacher for five years and he has a son with autism. “I get so much out of this,” he said of the awards ceremony. “People like Amanda are the people that students can go to and it’s special to me.” He noted the struggles and investments that special education teachers sometimes make and the abuse they sometimes receive from students and even parents.
“A lot of times [the teachers] care more about the kid’s education than the parents and that’s got to be painful,” Miller said.
But Cobb said, “I love it and I cannot imagine that I would not continue to learn along the way. So I hope within five years I will be better than I am now.” She’ll start her second year of full-time teaching at South Middle next year. “I was planning to apply for jobs [this summer] but I don’t have to do that anymore.”