Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Janna Hamrick (WV '23)

May 28, 2024

Janna Hamrick (WV '23), who teaches fifth grade math at Rock Branch Elementary School in Nitro, struggled with reading in elementary school. The influence of a few special role models, including her first grade teacher Mrs. Bennett, inspired her choice to teach. “Without her drive and passion for education and helping her students, I’m not sure where I would be now,” she says. “She helped me recognize my weaknesses, but never let them define who I was as a person.” Now, she shares these lessons with her own students, showing them that anything is possible. Janna received a 2023-24 West Virginia Milken Educator Award in Nitro on November 1, 2023.

Milken Family Foundation: How have students responded since your Milken Educator Award surprise?

Janna Hamrick (WV '23): My students were over-the-moon excited. Some of them were emotional on the day of the announcement, as was I. I still have K-5 students say things like "Hey, you’re rich!" or "You’re the lady that won that award." One second grader, especially, when he sees me, says, "Have you gotten your money yet?" My students never miss the opportunity to tell people about it when we have visitors come into our classroom. My daughter Caroline, who is in first grade, made sure after the announcement to let her friends know that she and I weren’t going anywhere and that she was going to get a claw machine. 

MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?

Hamrick: I have two special people I would consider my role models in becoming an educator. The first person is my first grade teacher Mrs. Bennett. I struggled with reading at a very young age. I felt defeated that I would never understand or grasp the concepts. Mrs. Bennett did everything in her power to help me succeed, see the best in me, celebrate my successes, and find all the ways she could help me become a successful reading student. Without her drive and passion for education and helping her students, I’m not sure where I would be now. She gave me the foundations for success in reading. She helped me recognize my weaknesses, but never let them define who I was as a person. She went above and beyond to work with my parents to help them help me.

The second person who I believe played a huge part in my decision to choose education was my mom. My mom worked tirelessly when I was younger to help me be successful especially when it was such a struggle in first grade. She bought multiple programs and took all the advice of my first grade teacher. She encouraged me when I played teacher when I was younger and when I said that was what I wanted to be when I grew up. My mom always wanted to be a teacher but got married and started a family before considering going to school. She always wished she had gone to college to become a teacher. In preparing my classroom each year for a new group of students my mom has always been willing to help get my room ready, spend some of her own money on my students, and volunteer in my classroom. She would have made an excellent teacher and I hope that I make her proud in doing what I do each and every day. 

MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching. 

Hamrick: I subbed for a couple of years and had two long-term positions in second grade classrooms. I had a lot of support from the other second grade teachers. I felt like they took me under their wing and really guided me through those first couple of years and experiences. My first full-time teaching position was in a fifth grade classroom in a very small school in Putnam County. There was only one classroom for each grade, K-5, and they were pretty small classes. This school was located in the lowest socioeconomic status area in the county. This particular group of students was especially sad. Many were being raised by either an aunt, uncle, grandparent or another family member. There were a lot of drugs and trauma in their lives already at such a young age. This group struggled academically because of all the things they had already faced in their lives. More than half had been retained at one point in their elementary career. I had several students that year who lost their parents to drugs. Going to funerals for my fifth grade students' parents was not something I ever envisioned happening.

Once again there was only one classroom for each grade level, therefore I was on my own. I felt like that year really defined me as a teacher and what kind of teacher I would be for all my days. I loved those kids. They were my kids and many of them called me mom. I knew that no matter what, any child who stepped into my classroom deserved love. With this challenging group of students, they didn’t see love on a daily basis at their homes, but when they were with me, I wanted them to know they were loved and safe. That was an interesting year and one I’ll never forget. I learned that building relationships with my students and letting them know I cared were fundamental. Before I would ever teach them anything else, they had to know that I cared.

MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?

Hamrick: I hope my students remember, first, that they are loved and valued. They all have a place in this great big world to offer all the great things about themselves. I hope they remember having a great time in my classroom, laughing a lot, but also learning a lot, too. Life is too short to take everything so seriously all the time. With a good mix of fun and learning, we make each day exciting.

MFF: Can you tell us more about your role in the local school improvement council? Why has it been important and beneficial to build strong relationships between Rock Branch Elementary and local organizations and businesses?

Hamrick: At Rock Branch Elementary School, we are always looking for ways to get our students and parents involved in community service. We also work hard to get the parents involved in many things at the school. Parents are invited for volunteer opportunities at the school such as making popcorn, reading in classrooms, conducting crafts, helping with the choral performances throughout the year, helping plan parties or dances, planning Agriculture Day, Field Day, Field Trips, and much, much more. We believe it is important for the community to know we appreciate their support in any way possible. We encourage them to get involved in any way possible. We have local businesses who are generous to make donations for whatever we may need here at RBE.

A big service project that is schoolwide is Operation Christmas Child. During October and November, each classroom collects new items that can be placed in shoeboxes to be shipped overseas to children who are less fortunate all over the world. After all the items are collected, our third through fifth grade students travel to a local church to put the shoe boxes together with all the items. It is a day of joy and excitement. Every year we have gotten more donations and have been able to pack more boxes. If you ask our students, it is one of their favorite things we do here at The Branch. The kids become selfless givers and it is so special! In the future, I would love to see even more involvement from the community and our parents at RBE. I think a Career Day or Career Fair is something that I would love to see. These kids really need to see what opportunities are out there for them as far as their future goes and what they can do with the passions and interests they have. With our school being in an area with low socioeconomic status it would be very easy to have low community involvement, so we try to have family nights and parent events to get parents into the school and comfortable. Many of them may not have had the best experiences themselves in school and we want them to feel that this is a safe place for everyone.

MFF: What advice would you share with people who are interested in becoming teachers?

Hamrick: The first thing I would tell someone considering education would be to make sure you are going into this profession for the right reasons. I wholeheartedly believe it is a calling, not everyone would make it as an educator. It takes heart and passion to be able to do this job and do it well. Once you have figured out that it is your calling, I would say that you should always remember that each day is a fresh start for you and your students. Find co-workers, friends and family who will support you and lift you up on the days you wonder why you chose this career. These people will also celebrate you when you find success and give you encouragement when necessary. Being a teacher is life-changing for your students and yourself. Don’t ever forget your 'why' for becoming a teacher.

MFF: Are you working on any interesting initiatives or new projects? Is there anything else you want to share about your classroom?

Hamrick: I have some ideas for new projects I’d like to take on. As I mentioned previously, I would love to start some kind of Career Fair or Career Day. I would also like my fifth grade students to present at least one big project next year to their parents, whether that is a wax museum report, a project with ecosystems, or even about the Civil War. I have done some of these things in the past as a leadership day where students presented a particular topic that they were most interested in. I think I will work on bringing that back next year. I will also continue my work with Operation Christmas Child.

I want to get involved with the Educators Rising Program here in West Virginia. This is a program in the technical schools in the state that are preparing future teachers as they head to college to get their teaching degrees. I got to work with these students recently and was so inspired by the passion they already had without even starting their professional program at a university. 

Watch our interview with Janna Hamrick (WV '23) on the day of her Milken Award notification:


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