SEBRING - For the 41 students in Jerry Wright's fifth-grade "REAL Ville" class at Woodlawn Elementary in Sebring, "REAL" stand for being respectful citizens, eager learners, agents of change, and leaders of tomorrow.
"We want to instill into our students those qualities, those pillars," said the well-liked, highly educated 22-year-old teacher. "We want them to be agents of change, to realize that they are special. It's all about encouraging kids to make a lasting difference."
"I have never seen anyone with more natural talent to teach children than Jerry," said educator Vicki VanDam, who first worked with Wright two years ago at Memorial Elementary School. "He is an inspiration to us 'veteran teachers.' He is a cheerleader to all.and goes out of his way to make learning fun."
Voted "teacher of the year" at Memorial Elementary for the 2011-2012 school year, this fourth-generation native of Avon Park credits his kindergarten and first-grade teacher, Lee Sizemore, with being his inspiration.
"She truly is the reason I teach today. Her class was warm, welcoming.you knew you mattered to her," Wright said of Sizemore, who worked for the Highlands County School District for 35 years.
For three of those years, Wright interned at her second-grade class at Park Elementary. "It was incredible hands-on experience."
Wright started dual-enrollment college classes at South Florida State College while still in his sophomore year at Avon Park High School, and had his associate's degree by the time he graduated high school in 2009.
He earned both his bachelor's degree and master's of education from Warner University in Lake Wales.
Now, this self proclaimed "education junkie" is working on a specialist of education advanced terminal degree, taking online courses from Nova Southeastern University.
His intent is to finish his doctorate within the next five years.
"I have a heart that wants to change the world," said Wright, who sees teaching as his calling in life.
His goal is to help kids see their potential and to empower them to succeed.
Wright explained that elementary schools around the county will be adding curriculum based on Stephen R. Covey's 2008 book, "The Leader in Me: How Schools and Parents around the World are Inspiring Greatness, One Child at a Time."
Whether he is participating in the Heartland Triathlon, teaching vacation Bible school at Grace Bible Church, volunteering at Lake Denton Camp or advancing his own education, Wright said he is always dedicated to accomplishing his goals.
A former director of children's ministry with Union Congregational and Avon Park Lakes Baptist Church, Wright has also worked as a real ambassador for Group Publishing of Colorado, training churches in the use of their Bible school lessons.
A member of the district's Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and teaching group, Wright was invited in May to attend a conference in St. Petersburg, sponsored by the Bill and Linda Gates Foundation.
"I love teaching, and I want to give back to a field that has given so much to me," noted Wright.
After attending a Kagan training seminar on model cooperative learning at Tampa's Independent Day School - Corbett Campus, Wright and class co-teacher Jonathan Spencer developed what he describes as an eclectic style of team teaching.
The curriculum, based on Spencer Kagan's 1985 book, "Cooperative Learning Structure," encourages an increase in study participation for students and individual accountability.
"Jon is a great friend, a huge mentor and an inspiration in my teaching," said Wright of Spencer, who has 14 years of experience with the school system. "I interned here with Jon one day a week while I was in college."
Now, they are in their second year of jointly teaching this innovative, upbeat method of learning, which utilizes class cooperation, educational games, visuals, music, study partners and positive reinforcement to increase academic achievements, social skills, study skills and students' self esteem.
And for the fifth-graders in Wright and Spencer's "REAL Ville" class, it seems to be working.
"(Mr. Wright) is fun. He is a good teacher. He teaches us math, reading and science. I've learned a lot this year," remarked Kyrell Griffin, one of the students Wright describes as a "shining star" of his class.
"These kids are my heroes; they are what give teachers purpose in life," Wright said.