Alabama Teacher of the Year Leaves Classroom. Here’s Her Story.

Ann Marie Corgill poses with President Obama in the Oval Office before the Rose Garden Ceremony recognizing Teachers of the Year.
Ann Marie Corgill poses with President Obama in the Oval Office before the Rose Garden Ceremony recognizing Teachers of the Year.

Six months ago, Ann Marie Corgill was standing next to President Obama celebrating being named a National Teacher of the Year finalist, intent on finding a job teaching in an inner-city school after years in Alabama’s richest district.

On Sunday afternoon, Corgill officially resigned after two months in Birmingham’s Oliver Elementary School, intent on never stepping foot in a classroom again. In a statement Monday, she reopened the door to future teaching but the resignation from Oliver stood.

After 21 years of teaching elementary school students in Mountain Brook, Trussville, Hoover and New York City — and despite her national and state Teacher of the Year titles, her National Board Certification and her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in early childhood education — Birmingham and Alabama school officials informed her in an email a little more than a week ago that she wasn’t qualified to teach the fifth-grade class she had been in front of since September.

“I’m at a point where I feel I need to be an advocate for other teachers with certification issues,” Corgill said Sunday afternoon. “I’ve asked my principal to use the $2,500 I received for being the Alabama Teacher of the Year to buy as many iPads for my fifth-grade classroom as possible.”

In addition to being named a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in April, Corgill was Alabama’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. She writes a blog on best teaching practices, and wrote a book: “Of Primary Importance: What’s Essential in Teaching Young Writers” and is working on a second book about quality instruction. In order to have credibility, Corgill said she felt she needed to work in an urban setting.

Before applying to work in Birmingham city schools, she had been participating in educational outreach in Woodlawn through her church, Church of the Highlands. Oliver Elementary School is part of the Woodlawn Innovation Network, an initiative to transform Oliver and Avondale Elementary, Hayes K-8, Putnam Middle and Woodlawn High schools through innovative programs and teaching practices.

It wasn’t Corgill’s choice to teach fifth grade – she was always more comfortable with younger children. For the last three years, she taught fourth grade at Cherokee Bend Elementary School in Mountain Brook and was excited to get a job teaching second-grade students at Oliver Elementary this year. She knew it would be a challenge coming from a school where money woes were all but unheard of, and spent thousands of her own dollars on books and materials for her Birmingham classroom.

Then came the first blow.

A post-it note found in a fourth-grader's notebook last year at Cherokee Bend Elementary School in Mountain Brook.
A post-it note found in a fourth-grader\’s notebook last year at Cherokee Bend Elementary School in Mountain Brook.

Three weeks into the school year, the principal told her a fifth-grade teacher was resigning and she was being moved to that spot. “As devastated as I was, I was a first- year teacher so I knew I had to do it,” Corgill said. The week after Labor Day, she left behind all the books and materials she had bought for her second-grade classroom and introduced herself to her new fifth-grade class.

She began to settle into her new role as a fifth-grade teacher.

Then came the second blow.

“Teachers who are new to the district don’t get a paycheck for the first month after they start working,” she said. “I knew that. It was no big deal, I was prepared.” But when Sept. 30 rolled around, she checked her account and there was no paycheck.

All of her bills are automatically deducted from her account, and she became overdrawn.

She talked to Birmingham’s payroll department and asked them to write a letter to her bank and the creditors explaining the issue was their fault, not Corgill’s. They agreed.

No letter has been written, she said.

After nearly a month of back and forth, Corgill finally received her September paycheck on Oct. 23.

The final blow came the next day.

Corgill traveled to Thomasville to visit her parents and deposit the paycheck into her small hometown bank, which has no Birmingham branches. Around noon that day, frazzled and frustrated after nearly a month of trying to get paid, she received an email from her principal asking for documentation to prove she was qualified to teach fifth grade.

“At this point, I’m about to lose it,” she said. “I sent my documents that showed I’m Nationally Board Certified and I’m told that National Board Certification doesn’t count for the state’s highly qualified requirement.”

Corgill is certified to teach kindergarten through third grade in Alabama. But she has National Board Certification – which entails years of work writing, preparing, videotaping and documenting teaching methods and requires recertification every decade – to teach children ages 7 through 12, which would include fifth-grade students. Records show her certification is valid through November 2020.

Corgill said state education officials told her that the national certification doesn’t override or replace state certification requirements, and that she would have to take the PRAXIS exam, as well as submit more paperwork and pay more fees to become certified.

The next day, she submitted her resignation.

On Friday, her principal, several Birmingham administrators, and even Birmingham Superintendent Kelley Castlin-Gacutan, tried to talk Corgill out of resigning and offered to pay for her to take the PRAXIS exam, as well as a tutor to help her study for the test.

She told them she would take the weekend to think it over, but the damage had been done.

“My beliefs about teaching and learning became more silent as the days went on. I was losing myself as a teacher,” she said. “I have money saved and there are a lot of things I don’t need. I don’t need cable. I don’t need to use the air conditioning the way I’ve been using it. And I’m also fortunate that I have a network where I can write, speak and tutor. And if I have to work retail then I will do it, but my decision is final.”

Chanda Temple, spokeswoman for Birmingham city schools, declined comment, saying Corgill’s certification issues and resignation are a personnel matter.

State Superintendent Tommy Bice said the certification issues are not a statement on the quality of Corgill’s teaching.

“Unlike her tenure in Mountain Brook City School System, however, she now teaches in a Title I school that receives Title I funds,” he wrote in a statement. “As a result of that assignment, she and all teachers at that school must meet the federal requirements referred to as Highly Qualified Teacher.”

Since Corgill’s teaching certificate is only for kindergarten through third grade, she doesn’t meet the federal requirement to teach fifth grade, he said.

“Several options were presented to Ms. Corgill to rectify this requirement, but it appears that she has not determined which, if any, she will pursue at this time,” he said. “At no time did we or anyone involved imply or require that she resign as a result of this discovery by the Birmingham city school system, but at the same time, we are not at liberty to pick and choose to whom we apply the HQT requirements expected of all teachers at a Title I school.”