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Clay's history molds her into a teacher of the year

By Bayne Hughes
DAILY Education Writer

hughes@decaturdaily.com 340-2432

Rachel Clay's background molded her into a different kind of teacher, says her principal Joyce Johnston.

One of five children with four stepsiblings from Talladega, Clay brings experiences that mix military with police work and education into her fifth-grade classroom at Somerville Road Elementary.

Johnston said Clay's life helps her relate to Somerville Road students in a unique way that makes her worthy of Decatur City Schools' elementary teacher of the year honors. Johnston said Clay knows some of her students are headed down a wrong path, so she tries to give them other options.

A graduate of Alabama A&M University and a former member of the university's ROTC program, Clay went into the U.S. Army on active duty after graduation. She returned to Huntsville after a duty tour that included Germany and South Korea.

Her next stop was the Madison Police Department, but Clay didn't want a law enforcement career. She returned to school, earned her master's in education and became a teacher.

Johnston hired Clay seven years ago to teach fifth grade. Still a member of the National Guard, Operation Enduring Freedom interrupted her career in 2001. She served two years in Kuwait.

An executive officer, Clay was responsible for maintenance and keeping personnel data.

"We really had to be on our toes and be aware of our surroundings at all times," Clay said.

In March, Clay returned to Decatur bringing her stern military demeanor to her classroom. Johnston said this demeanor fits well with fifth-grade students.

While demanding, Johnston said Clay involves herself in students' lives. And at school where more than 90 percent qualify for the federal free-or-reduced lunch program, Clay holds projects to teach students to help those in need.

"Some of her students are in need, but teaching them to help others in need really helps boost their confidence and self esteem," Johnston said.

Johnston said it's rare that a teacher with only five years of classroom work earns such high honors in the city.

"She showed a kind of maturity in her first years that most teachers don't," Johnston said.

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