Garner Cleveland Record

Smith teacher and semi-finalist for top district honor has always had her students’ backs

Brittany Packer helps explain a classwork to fifth-grader Sam Rodas.
Brittany Packer helps explain a classwork to fifth-grader Sam Rodas.

When Brittany Packer reached 11th grade, she couldn’t fight it any more.

Her mother, brother, sister and “six aunts,” she says, are all teachers. She was basically destined to be one.

But Packer was determined not to follow in that path. She wanted to do something else. Or so she thought.

“I thought of the most ridiculous job, like a tornado chaser,” Packer said.

That was until she met a young boy who had lost his mom and brother in a house fire. Packer met the 8-year-old boy, while shadowing an elementary school teacher through a program at school.

“I can still see his face right now,” Packer said, looking into space.

He too had been burned in the fire from head to toe, but was the only one in his family to survive. His body was almost completely burned, his face unrecognizable. He spent months in the hospital recovering. Yet, when he came to school, the second-grade student always wore a smile on his face.

Packer asked the young boy what made him so happy. He looked at her and said the reason he came to school was because he knew his teacher had his back.

“And from that point forward, I said ‘that’s what I want to be.’ I want to be the teacher that always has my kids’ backs,” Packer, now 28, said. “No matter what. No matter what’s going on at home. Not matter what challenges they face in their little 10-year-old lives. They always should feel like I have their back, even if no one else does.”

Packer’s priority as a teacher has always been relationship building, and her students – and now the district – has noticed.

Packer is now a fifth-grade teacher at Smith Elementary School and last month, Packer was selected as one of 26 semi-finalists for the Wake County Public School System’s “Teacher of the Year” award. She was recognized at a school board meeting two weeks ago.

The group will be whittled down to 13 finalists, who will be announced in early April. The new “Teacher of the Year,” will be named May 11.

A native of Greensboro and alumnae of UNCW, Packer has been a teacher at Smith Elementary for two years. Prior to that she was a teacher for four years in the Randolph County School System. That district had only 17,600 students and nearly every one knew everyone.

She said moving to Wake County, a district of more than 155,000, was a little scary for her. She credits the Smith staff for helping to smooth her transition.

“I got really lucky because Smith is a really great place to be,” Packer said. “I have a lot of really great co-workers who have really just welcomed me and helped me to be the teacher that I am.”

Shocked to be selected

Packer said the day she won the award, her principal, Kimberly Mitchell, came rushing into her classroom with an excited look on her face.

“Have you checked your email?” Mitchell asked her.

Packer hadn’t, so she pulled it up. The email said she was selected as a semi-finalist for the district-wide award. There wasn’t much emotion. Packer said she was shocked, and it didn’t hit her until later that night.

“I did not think out of 170 something schools, that that would be a thing,” she said. “It was very humbling, and a very big privilege to be nominated by the staff (at Smith).”

Mitchell said she was excited.

Mitchell said in her 16 years as a principal or assistant principal, she had never had a teacher be a semi-finalist for the district’s top honor for teachers.

“So I was very excited for her and I was very excited for her to be representing Smith,” Mitchell said. “And really excited about what that means for all those kids that she touches each year in terms of the instruction she gives them all.”

Mitchell said Packer has some of the highest science scores in the schools and among the region.

“She’s developing a lot of leadership skills in her kids and helping them be able to make that transition into middle school,” Mitchell said.

Proud of her students

It’s easy to tell Packer is proud of her students. She encourages them constantly in class. Wednesday, she stayed behind after school, to tutor a group of girls in her class, who were on the cusp of figuring out their fractions. When they finally figured something out, they got excited and she gave them a high-fives.

Packer said don’t let the test scores fool you. She said these students are doing well and are working hard. She said statistics can sometimes be misleading and don’t tell the whole picture.

“It doesn’t tell me that, that morning they woke up and didn’t have breakfast because no one was home to give them breakfast,” she said. “It doesn’t tell anybody the fact that they moved eight times in one year, or they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. It doesn’t tell you those things but I know those things. So even a one on an End-of-Grade test, if that’s the best that kid can do, makes me proud.”

And her students are proud of her too. When it was announced that she was a semi-finalist, some of her students cried, Packer said. She strives to be a role model for her students.

Assistant Principal Anne Pauls said that is what makes Packer a great teacher.

“She’s an irreplaceable teacher,” Pauls said. “She has natural teaching abilities, but is able to connect with both adults and children in a way that goes unnoticed. She’s admired and recognized within this school building. The parents of those students see those same qualities.”

“It’s a joy to be in her room and watch her children learn.”

Mitchell agreed.

“It takes a special person to care about you and make you want to learn,” she said.

Packer said regardless of whether she advances to the next round, she’ll keep doing what she’s doing. She still can’t believe she is representing her school, let alone as one of 26 semi-finalists. But her students will continue to be her priority, she said.

“Ultimately I do it for them and that’s why I’m here,” Packer said.

After all, it was what she was destined to do.

Jonathan M. Alexander: 919-829-4822, @GarnerCleveland