"Athena is a rock star. She is a Cleveland High School grad and very involved in the community. She leads in many humanitarian efforts and her passion for those efforts is contagious. Her students are drawn to her because of her sincere effort to connect with them in and out of the classroom. She has high academic expectations balanced with a knack for building relationships with her students."
— Cleveland High Principal Autumn O’Bryan
Athena Davis made a mistake.
After two years in the pre-physical therapy program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she realized it wasn't the career for her. That very day, she changed her major to education; she wanted to be a high school English teacher.
On April 29, Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan, hosts of "Live with Kelly and Michael," the nationally syndicated morning talk show, announced five finalists in "Live's Top Teacher Search" contest. Davis, who teaches English at Cleveland High School, heard her name called.
Davis, nominated by the parent of a student, didn't even know the contest existed until April 25, when the show announced the 12 semi-finalists in national contest.
"My principal had tweeted that there would be a surprise on our Raider Connect (our school news show), but we had no clue what it was," she says. "When it flipped to the show and the announcement was made, I was in shock."
Davis was in New York on Monday to appear on "Live with Kelly and Michael," which airs locally at 9 a.m. weekdays on WTVC Channel 9. The other four nominees will appear on the show this week, one on each day. The winner will be announced on Tuesday, May 20.
Addie Strode, an 11th-grader at Cleveland High who was watching the live stream, too, texted Davis as soon as her name was announced.
"I could only think of what she was thinking and that my teacher was on live television, broadcast all over the country, and that she was going to be famous," Addie says.
But it comes as no surprise to Addie that her teacher is being honored.
"I wouldn't just consider her a good teacher, but an outstanding teacher," Addie says. "She pours her life into everything she does and everyone she meets. Her passion for her students, family, teaching, and everything she comes across is extremely recognizable."
No one at Cleveland High is a bigger fan of Davis than Principal Autumn O'Bryan.
"Athena is a rock star," O'Bryan says. "She is a Cleveland High School grad and very involved in the community. She leads in many humanitarian efforts and her passion for those efforts is contagious. Her students are drawn to her because of her sincere effort to connect with them in and out of the classroom. She has high academic expectations balanced with a knack for building relationships with her students."
O'Bryan says it's "thrilling" to see teachers recognized for their ongoing hard work.
"Teaching is a tough profession and often thankless. ... We are all thrilled that the nation can see the amazing work that Athena does. It not only speaks volumes for her personally, but for our school, our community and our profession.
"The 'Live' show chose an outstanding individual to represent what teaching is all about," she says.
Mikaela Clements, a senior at Cleveland High, credits Davis as the reason she'll be majoring in elementary education next fall at Lee University.
"If I had the opportunity to be just like anyone in this world when I am older, it would be her," Mikaela says. "She has definitely had a pull on why I chose to be a teacher. I hope that I will be able to impact lives as much as she does. I have learned so much about caring for others and being compassionate to those who are not as well off as us through her actions."
Along with her English classes, Davis also teaches a course on the Holocaust and other genocides, using literature and film as tools. Beyond the Holocaust itself, in which an estimated 6 million Jews were killed by Nazi Germany during World War II, she also teaches about the aftermath of the event, including the U.S. government's decision to place Japanese-Americans living in the U.S. during the war into internment camps as well as other genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur.
"I think it's important to learn the history (of the Holocaust), but my goal is for my students to understand the importance of standing up, speaking out, and reach out to others," she says. "How many potentially dangerous situations could have been diffused if someone had been there to be a friend, speak out against the wrong?
"I feel very strongly that we are inextricably tied to one another and we have to carry one another's burdens. I believe that Hitler could never have accomplished what he did if the masses had spoken up. It worries me how often today we are the silent majority and how easy it is for us, me included, to just sit back and watch instead of becoming involved."
Addie, who has taken the course, calls it "life-changing." Davis' passion for teaching includes encouraging each one to reach his or her potential, she says.
"She supports my ideas, my thoughts, and she believes I can reach my goals that I have set for myself," Addie says. "Without her, I wouldn't be the student, friend, leader and daughter I am today. I hope that one day, I can be as passionate, caring, loving, creative, observant and patient as she is."
Mikaela says Davis brings a comfortable, family-like atmosphere to the classroom.
"Mrs. Davis is the type of teacher that makes sure she has a personal relationship with every one of her students. I know that I can go to her for anything."
When her students graduate, Davis says, she hopes more than anything else that they understand that what they do matters.
"I want them to feel a personal responsibility to impact the world around them, both in small ways like kindness and goodness to those around them, and in large ways like child sponsorships, activism and social responsibility," she says. "I encourage them to find something they care strongly about and are passionate about and get involved."
Contact Karen Nazor Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6396.
Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...