Taking the stage to deliver words of motivation to principals, Killeen ISD’s Elementary Teacher of the Year James Cook learned that he was moving on in the state’s teacher of the year process.
The Cedar Valley Elementary School fifth-grade teacher is the Region 12 Education Service Center Elementary Teacher of the Year.
KISD Superintendent John Craft took the stage at the main ballroom of the Killeen Civic and Conference Center Tuesday during a training session for principals and assistant principals. He introduced Cook, then made the surprise reveal.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Cook said moments after stepping off the stage. “I also feel enormous pressure. I’ve seen so many teachers do such amazing things. I have to show that to the whole region.”
Upon receiving the regional honor, Cook turned to the assembled principals and urged them to be quick to recognize their hard-working staff members as they return to campus in August leading to the start of school.
The honored teacher told principals that he is the doorstop for his students – he makes sure the door to learning, growth and care is always open to all.
“I told them I’m the doorstop,” he said. “I lift them up. I recognize them. I empower them.”
After serving in the US Army 22 years, Cook said he began observing the bus stop close to his house, where children seemed excited to be going off to school.
The husband of Killeen High School history teacher Keina Cook said he wanted to be the reason students get excited to go to school.
“I want to be that teacher that teaches them to believe in themselves,” said Cook.
It was a teacher that first inspired him.
As a high school sophomore, the award-winning teacher said he began losing interest in academic pursuits when his English teacher, Mrs. Williams, encouraged him to pursue an interest in writing.
“She built me up,” he said. “She built me up through my writing and encouraged me.”
Cook has incorporated financial literacy into his teaching. He has also shared his knowledge from military service, teaching students the correct way to fold the flag and aspects of good citizenship.
The popular teacher is also known to attend students’ sporting events, performances and church activities.
“My students are walking the journey with me,” he said. “They work hard. They help me. We build a family bond early. They inspire me to keep going, to keep making a difference.”
Cook now represents a region that serves 76 school districts in 12 counties in the Texas Teacher of the Year process.
“Cook believes in building relationships that foster trust — allowing students to become free-thinking individuals capable of researching facts and making informed decisions while finding their purpose,” KISD spokeswoman Taina Maya said in a news release. “He vows each day to make a positive impact on someone.”
After teaching all core subjects, Cook saw a growing need for delivering math content that students can use outside the classroom. In addition to traditional lessons, he developed and uses a system that teaches financial literacy, budgeting, borrowing, and contract litigation. Knowing the lifelong value that financial literacy provides, Cook’s program pays students for attendance, good citizenship, peer tutoring and leadership or volunteer tasks, according to KISD. The students pay rent for school supplies, internet access and hardware. His students can use their savings to purchase specialty items like supplies and healthy snacks; however, they have to pay fines for misbehavior, being late, or not returning items by deadlines. The students learn how to manage a balanced budget and consequences like bank fines for mismanaging money or unpaid bills. His students learn how their earning potential goes far beyond a salary.
As an educator, Cook believes teachers can significantly impact students by engaging with them outside the classroom. The former military sergeant often attends his students’ sporting events, performances, or church services. After agreeing to attend one such church service, a student surprised Cook by honoring him as the most influential person in her life, helping her trust and communicate with adults, despite former tumultuous experiences. Seeing her growth and the positive impact she has on her peers is just one example that Cook shares about the positive impact teachers can have on their students. He knows that every student needs to see that their teachers care about them beyond the classroom and that showing interest in them will engage them to be responsive and want to achieve more than normal expectations.
“We applaud the committee for recognizing the enthusiasm for education demonstrated by Mr. James Cook,” Craft said. “Empowering and educating students while providing quality education and creating innovative learning experiences, Mr. Cook has played a critical role in the lives of his students. We are proud to have him represent Killeen ISD and teachers across the state of Texas during the most challenging year in education.”