Even in preschool, Caitlin Bower Russell used to come home every day and teach imaginary students what she'd learned in class.
The Queens University of Charlotte graduate is still teaching - to real children this time - and she's so good at it that she won the 2010 Year Teacher of the Year Award for elementary school teachers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, besting 84 other nominees.
Bower credits her skills to inspiring public school teachers she had as a child, and to the education she received at Queens in teaching through hands-on exercises that engage students in their lessons.
The young talent shines in one of her fourth-grade classes at the language-immersion school Collinswood Language Academy in Charlotte, not far from Queens' campus.
In a 15-minute span, she gives her charges instructions on writing letters and making collages to send to pen pals in Los Angeles. Instead of staring blankly, her students keep moving, working on projects and talking with her and each other about their work.
Just a short time removed from her classes at Queens, Russell already looks like a master of the profession, talking to her students with gentle authority, giving each a high five when he or she exits her classroom.
"I love making learning authentic for my students," said Russell on a break from class. "I believe in an interactive classroom. I always want to push the limits and find a new way to present information."
For example, Russell occasionally turns her classroom into an "Italian restaurant," giving students dry pasta to solve grammar puzzles or assigning them to write in journals to reflect on science lessons she's taught.
In all of these exercises, she tells them they're writers, scientists or mathematicians. And by doing the work, she says, they remember the concepts they must learn to pass end-of-grade tests and to succeed in life.
When CMS officials gave Russell her award in a surprise visit to Collinswood, she said she was shocked that they chose her.
"It was comforting to know that what I'm doing in my classroom is what I should be doing."
Russell says she's always learned best by doing. At Queens, she and her fellow education majors took the principles they learned in class and put them into practice in clinical- and student-teaching sessions in area public schools.
She plans to return to school at some point to earn her master's degree, either in curriculum and instruction or in literacy. One day, she thinks she'd like to be a literacy facilitator, helping teachers plan and execute reading and writing lessons.
"But I don't know if I could leave the classroom," she says.
See it for yourself
Check out the CMS Employee Awards show that includes Russell's honor.