When you step into Latrece B. Sudduth’s fourth-grade classroom at Andrew A. Robinson Elementary, you can tell there’s something special about it.

The first thing you would notice are students sitting on lime green exercise balls at tables. Sudduth, who’s known by her students as Ms. Brown, bounced on one as she taught equivalent fractions on a SmartBoard. Students, all wearing socks, were sitting at tables or lying down on the soft, squishy carpet as they wrote on their worksheets.

Photo by Tori Ray

The five-year elementary school teacher tries to make her classroom a comfortable one for her students. “I just want school to be a place you don’t mind coming to,” she said.

Andrew A. Robinson is a Title 1 school and Sudduth said teachers in those schools need to create a good atmosphere in the classroom.

“A lot of my students come from places they don’t desire to be in,” she added. “But, if I can make anything about being here a safer place for my students or a more comforting environment, then I’m more than happy to do that.”

Photo by Tori Ray

Dig, dig, dig

Sudduth, who’s lived in Jacksonville since she was 7, excelled in academics while attending public schools in Mandarin. Back then, she didn’t know she wanted be a teacher. When she first started attending the UNF, she was studying to become a lawyer.

But after she started working at the Children’s Gym at 18, Sudduth knew she wanted to have a career working with children.

“After doing that, first of all, I knew that could never sit at a desk all day after I did that job,” she said. “And I knew that I loved working with kids, and that I was a natural at it.” So, she shifted the course of her career and switched her major to education.

Sudduth’s teaching internship at Andrew A. Robinson showed her what teaching was really all about, she said. It exposed her to a Title 1 school in Jacksonville.

She said that before she interned at the school, she had assumed all schools were like hers. She had attended Mandarin High School, which was an “A” school at the time. She didn’t realize that some schools had more struggles than others.

Photo by Tori Ray

“But once I realized that,” she said, “I knew that this was the type of school I wanted to work in — where I was needed and can have an impact. A place where I can affect children and help them have better outcomes.”

But Sudduth said teaching at a high-needs school is no small feat. She spent about 10 to 12 hours creating her lesson plans each weekend during her first year of teaching. A challenge for her was getting her students to perform on grade-level.

Despite the pressures and obstacles in her first year, Sudduth said seeing a student make leaps and bounds in their academic performance is what makes her job worthwhile.

“That’s what’s really rewarding, because you don’t get to see that kind of growth for a student who already performs well academically,” she said. “But I get to put in all the work. Dig, dig, dig, and then I get to see the fruits of my labor.”

Sudduth tracks her students’ test scores and celebrates with her class whenever students improve on their them. Together, they stand up and clap the same number of claps for how many points the students improved. She said one of her students recently improved by 42 points.

Photo by Tori Ray

Finding a Goldmine

Suddath also enjoys her job because she knows she can teach more than just math. Throughout her lessons, she tries to instill a sense of ownership and good work ethic in her students. For example, every nine weeks, she lets her students pick their own seat.

Aside from trying to be a good role model for her students, Sudduth tries to do the same for their parents, and what she did to help them last year had a huge effect.

In 2016, Duval County adopted a new curriculum called Duval Math, which has more conceptual teaching strategies than the more traditional algorithms. The reason? Her students’ parents were struggling when they tried to help their children with their homework.

Sudduth, aware of this struggle, wondered how she could help. One night last year, she was in bed scrolling through Facebook when she got an idea.

“I thought, if I could go live (on Facebook), then the parents could see how I was teaching the strategies and the kids who needed the extra help could get the extra help,” she said. “Plus there are no distractions.”

Photo by Tori Ray

So, she did, and it was huge hit.

The students loved it. The parents were grateful, and several of them thanked her in Facebook messages. That’s when she knew she found a goldmine.

After creating the closed Facebook group and adding her students’ parents, Sudduth went live each week, often reviewing the week’s material or going over study guides for upcoming tests. The impact kept growing as the year went on. Teachers from other schools and, at one point, their students, were watching her live streams after class.

Using the social network helped Sudduth build authentic relationships and trust in her students and their parents. “I find that when parents know that you care about their students, they take it better when you do have to say something that’s less than desirable regarding their child,” she said.

Her efforts got the attention of the school system, and in February, Sudduth was presented the Duval County Teacher of the Year award. But aside from the title and the prizes, Sudduth seems like she would be happy either way.

Photo by Tori Ray

“My purpose is bigger than just reading math, writing and test scores. I can be more than that for somebody. And there aren’t a lot of jobs where you’re legitimately shaping and molding the future.”

Sudduth is earning her master’s degree in Educational Leadership and hopes to improve teacher retention by getting into a role that supports first-year teachers in Title I schools.

Sudduth is someone who notices the value in others and has been successful in discovering their treasures. “You don’t always realize that you have something special.”