Teaching can be a challenging profession in the best of times.

Throw in a global pandemic that changes lesson plans from in-person to online with less than a week's notice, and the stakes get even higher.

Educators who made that switch seamlessly suddenly earned a lot of extra respect from appreciative parents everywhere.

ThisWeek Community News has long been proud to shine a spotlight on outstanding central Ohio educators. To recognize some of those who go above and beyond in the classroom, we are pleased to again partner with Columbus Parent on the 2020 Teachers of the Year awards. The project, in its seventh year, recognizes 15 finalists and three winners -- one each at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

>> 2019 Teachers of the Year <<

As in previous years, we launched the program by mailing letters to principals and school district communications staffers, explaining the awards and urging them to nominate worthy teachers. The project also was promoted in print and on the websites and social media.

Nominations, which were taken online from Dec. 5, 2019, to Jan. 16, came from school districts across central Ohio. They were submitted by parents, current and former students, administrators, colleagues and family members. Our editorial staffs reviewed them all, did some independent research and chose 15 finalists. Readers voted online from Feb. 22 to March 25 to determine the winners.

Normally, we would have surprised the three teachers with the news during awards assemblies at their schools, where students, fellow teachers and administrators would have clapped and cheered.

Although we did not get the pleasure of celebrating with them in person this spring, we hope to be able to honor them at their schools when state guidelines permit us to do so.

This year's winners are Mindy Martin, a fourth-grade teacher at Reynoldsburg City Schools' Taylor Road Elementary School; Julie Biswas, a middle school teacher at the Columbus School for Girls in Bexley; and Jim Coley, a high school teacher at Reynoldsburg's eSTEM Academy. All were recognized in the summer issue of Columbus Parent.

Mindy Martin

If not for Mindy Martin's original career, she might not have found happiness in her second.

The Evansville, Indiana, native graduated in 2001 from Catawba College in North Carolina with a degree in finance and spent five years as a personal banker with Bank of America.

"After working with a lot of the college students who were coming in to get credit cards and savings accounts and their first checking accounts and making all these errors and mistakes, I just felt like there was more," Martin said, adding that time she spent volunteering with Junior Achievement -- a nonprofit program for elementary-school students dedicated to financial literacy and work preparedness -- clinched her realization that "there was a calling for me in education."

More than a decade later, that calling has served Martin well. To cap off her seventh year as a fourth-grade teacher at Taylor Road Elementary School in Reynoldsburg, Martin was named the elementary school winner in the ThisWeek Community News/Columbus Parent 2020 Teachers of the Year awards.

Some who know Martin, 40, think describing her simply as a teacher doesn't do justice to all her contributions to both her school and the district. She has served on curriculum committees for math, reading, science and social studies, leads her school's spirit wear sale to benefit the Parent Teacher Organization and is on the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports committee to improve overall student behavior and foster their success.

"It's not unheard of for her to be here at 9 o'clock at night," Taylor Road principal Jamie Johnson said. "She is for sure one of the hardest-working teachers we have, but along with that, she is one of the most effective. Her evaluation every year is a '5' (the highest possible score).

"She is tutoring students during their lunch hour and during recess if they want to stay in. She's offering tutoring before school and after school for kids to help them learn things they might be having difficulty with. But aside from the academic stuff, she really just makes them better people."

Martin is Taylor Road's second Teachers of the Year winner; Rita Crego won the award in 2018.

After earning her teaching degree from University of North Carolina at Charlotte and getting her license in 2008, Martin spent a year at Eckerd Youth Alternatives, a nonprofit center for at-risk children in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, and four years teaching fourth and fifth grades at Hawk Eye Elementary School in Raeford, North Carolina, before moving to Central Ohio in 2013 to be closer to family.

Martin, who lives in Reynoldsburg with her husband, Scott, and daughters Lillian, 5, and Allison, 4, runs her class as a mini society. At the beginning of each year, students get descriptions of careers and go through an application and interview process, complete with references and an essay stating why they want to pursue a given occupation. They also use planners and must pay rent for their desks and fines if they break rules.

"My belief is that I don't just teach math, reading, science and social studies. I teach the whole child," Martin said.

"Teaching the whole child is the framework for everything I do. My passion to drive them comes from what's in the best interest of children. We're always there for the best interest of the kids. I think that's why my students enjoy the classroom, because they feel they're being heard. Our community doesn't run without them. I always tell them it's my job to teach and their job to do everything else."

Former student Lillian Van Horn, who will be an eighth-grader this fall, nominated Martin for the award. Van Horn's younger sister, Emma, also was in Martin's class during the 2018-19 school year.

"She can relate to anybody. She always tells us to call her if we need anything, if we need to talk about anything. We can always rely on her," Van Horn said.

"She has great teaching skills and if you didn't understand a topic, she would take time out of her lunch or break to have you come in and she'd go one on one. She always included you and made you feel like if you didn't understand something, it was OK."

-- Dave Purpura

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Julie Biswas

Columbus School for Girls middle school teacher Julie Biswas always had an interest in knowing how things work, but an education career -- let alone one focused on science -- wasn't her first choice.

It was only after working as a hairdresser and styling instructor that she decided to go back to school and pursue her true calling.

"I felt at home explaining how things worked and really enjoyed learning about how the brain works," she said. "This, along with wanting to work with young people, put me into the direction of teaching. Once I was in the classroom, it just felt right."

Biswas, 56, graduated from Ohio State University in 1995 with a bachelor's degree in biology education. Now she is the middle school winner in the 2020 Teachers of the Year awards.

Biswas became interested in science while growing up in North Hampton, a rural community just outside Springfield.

"When I was in school, I wasn't the best student, much less the best science student. But I was always interested in how things work," said Biswas, who lives in Galena with her husband of 30 years, Arun; their daughter, Sanghita, a CSG alumna and recent college graduate; and their son Aneel, a St. Charles Preparatory School alumnus and junior at Ohio State. "My dad is a farmer and a tinkerer. He's always trying to make things better."

Since joining CSG, Biswas' work in the classroom has been recognized with several awards and grants, including the 2011 Dorothy Sehring Award for Excellence in Teaching, given annually in memory of the longtime CSG educator. Biswas also serves as the team leader for eighth grade and as middle school student council co-adviser.

"When you walk into her classroom, you see girls actively engaged -- asking questions, making conjectures, testing hypotheses. She values each student's thoughts and opinions and encourages them to stretch and take risks in a supportive environment," said Director of Middle School Pamela Hartshorne, who nominated Biswas for the award. "I value her partnership and regularly seek her counsel, and I also appreciate the constant support she offers to our parents as they start their journey into middle school."

Head of School Jennifer Ciccarelli said Biswas is committed to helping students excel academically and personally.

"Not only does she develop innovative lesson plans and approaches to stretch and grow her students, but she truly loves her job and is open to her own growth," Ciccarelli said. "Julie doesn't rest on what she has always done. She is always open to trying new things, exploring new technologies and doing what is in the best interest of students."

"I love watching the moment of understanding, some would call (it) the 'light bulb' moment. Those are the best moments in teaching," Biswas said. "I also enjoy those 'why' conversations. The ones where curious students ask why or how. Those are sometimes off-topic, but can really build an environment where students feel safe to ask their questions. Those conversations lead to connections with girls and direct my teaching."

Biswas said one of her proudest accomplishments is working with Ohio State professor and CSG parent Yu Chen several years ago to conduct wetlands research with high school students for a National Science Foundation grant.

She also helped to develop the outdoor learning classroom at CSG's Cynthia's Woods in Gahanna in 2003, on property donated by the Jeffrey family of Bexley. And in 2007, Biswas earned a grant through Achieving Equity for Girls in Science to build an energy bike, which she and her students used to educate the community about energy efficiency.

Yet amid all these things, one of Biswas' most cherished roles is serving as an adviser to CSG's Rainbow Alliance, which advocates for LGBTQ students and their allies.

"That's a very important part of what I do. What we do here at CSG is all about helping the kids grow, finding their voices," Biswas said. "The fact that I've led that group for the last four years is something I'm really proud of."

She's also proud of the supportive environment created by her colleagues and administrators, especially in the past few months as they worked to maintain academic excellence through distance learning necessitated by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

"I really love that it's collaborative. I'm part of a team of teachers. We really talk frequently. We have regular meetings where we can talk about curriculum, how we're developing our curriculum and how we can best serve kids," Biswas said. "We really know the kids and their families, and we work to help build strategies."

-- Chris Bournea

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Jim Coley

Although he teaches U.S. Government at Reynoldsburg High School's eSTEM Academy -- short for environmental Science, Technology, Engineering and Math -- Jim Coley readily admits he is "not really a math (and) science person."

Still, some of Coley's most memorable achievements from the past several years involve something purely scientific, as he helped found the school's robotics team and led the team to world tournament appearances in 2015 and 2016.

"I love doing things like that, working with my hands. I like tools. It just lent itself to my love of that. I jumped right on that," Coley said. "It's really complicated."

Far less complicated is the high regard in which Coley's colleagues, students and parents hold him, a factor that helped him become the high school winner in the 2020 Teachers of the Year awards.

"When you have 25-year-olds coming back to a robotics program, they're not coming back to see the robots. They're coming back to see Jim," said Chris Strefelt, who nominated Coley for the award. His sons Michael and Thomas, who graduated in 2018 and 2020, respectively, had Coley as a teacher and were on the robotics team. "The man has had an impact on a whole lot of young people."

The robotics team, named Technical Difficulties, was a labor of love from its inception in 2011 to the time Coley stepped down after five seasons as coach in 2018. It is part of a larger program called FIRST Robotics, short for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, and is one of more than 8,000 teams around the world, according to Coley.

Robots can weigh up to 120 pounds with a maximum cost of $4,000, although development can be nearly four times that amount. That expense is covered through fundraising.

"It's all kid-designed and kid-built," Coley said. "This builds people. They teach kids how to do all of these amazing things that school doesn't normally teach them, like leadership, teamwork, self-reliance, problem solving and how to fail forward. Sometimes they redesign their robots three, four, five and six times."

Coley, 53, said he has taught every subject except psychology in a career that dates to the early 1990s. He and his wife, Renee, who teaches at Hannah Ashton Middle School, live in Pataskala and have two sons, Thomas and Jacob, who graduated from Reynoldsburg in 2014 and 2018, respectively, and were on the robotics team.

A Toledo native, Coley graduated from Ohio State University in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in education and earned a master's in arts and education in 2000. Coley spent a decade at Franklin Heights High School before coming to Reynoldsburg, where he will enter his 19th year this fall -- 10 of them at eSTEM, which he helped plan and launch.

"(Relationships) are the key for him," said Scott Bennett, eSTEM's principal and a 15-year colleague of Coley, dating to their time at Reynoldsburg High School's original Livingston Avenue campus. "He does such a great job of developing relationships with students and getting to know them on a personal level. That makes the whole classroom experience so much better."

Strefelt has been a frequent guest speaker in Coley's classes because of his job as a magistrate in Licking County Juvenile Court.

"He doesn't just stand up and give a lecture about the Constitution. He makes it something the kids can connect to," Strefelt said. "He didn't just want me to talk about how the court works, he wanted me to give them examples of cases I had seen come through court, things that would get their attention because of the facts of the case. It wasn't just dry black-and-white material.

"It was a real effort by him to make sure the kids appreciate not just how government works but (how) it affects their lives and how they can impact the government as well by being informed voters."

Coley said the role of technology has been the biggest change throughout his teaching career, but he quickly emphasizes one constant.

"When I started teaching, it was chalkboards and overhead projectors. Now I use computers constantly and my kids use computers constantly," he said. "I don't think kids have changed at all. I think they're exactly the same. The world has changed around them, so kids react differently, but fundamentally they're the same. They always have been."

-- Dave Purpura

jhohbach@columbusparent.com

@ColumbusParent