Chrystal Burkes is the library media specialist at Parkway Elementary School, which just opened its doors in fall 2018. Burkes was also a semifinalist for 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year.

Chrystal Burkes literally tries to give the students at Parkway Elementary School an appetite for learning.

Burkes makes it a part of her mission to take a lesson plan from the paper it’s written on and flesh it out as much as possible into a fully hands-on experience. One of her favorite recent projects was a “book tasting” in which she set her library up like a restaurant, with table settings that each featured a different book, and allowed the students four minutes to get a “taste” of each book.

“I try to think ‘How can I make lessons fun for kids?’” says Burkes, library media specialist at the Bryant school. “Even some topics or subjects might not seem fun on a piece of paper but I try to make them come alive.”

Responsible for K-5 students, Burkes, a former third-grade literacy teacher and an Arkansas Teacher of the Year semifinalist for 2019, begins her planning by asking herself what she would have wanted to do in the library at that age.

Burkes is a graduate of University of Central Arkansas, where she majored in early childhood education. She earned a master’s in educational theory and practice from Arkansas State University and a library and media specialist master’s degree from Southern Arkansas University.

But in a way, Burkes says, she has always felt like a teacher.

“I just love helping people learn new things and I love kids, so it was like a perfect combination,” Burkes says. “In high school I was in cheerleading and the captain and the co-captain and I loved teaching dancing and the routines. I babysat and then I started teaching them things I didn’t know were teaching techniques, so it’s kind of led me here.”

She previously taught third grade, so Burkes has had to adapt to providing a broader range of techniques and styles to address the different age groups she sees in the library.

Kindergarten and first grade teaching, for example require a bit more structure and hands-on than with the older grades. While she enjoys crafting lessons that bring concepts to life, Burkes said her most gratifying moments come when her students or their parents, sometimes a few years later, stop to visit or say thanks.

“You hear the good things and it makes you feel good, like you’re here for a reason and you’re impacting lives,” Burkes says.

Burkes says she plans to use at least part of her Amazing Educators prize money to buy more materials — stackables like Legos or building blocks, for example — to further enhance her hands-on lessons.

“I’m very honored and I was surprised,” she says of the recognition. “But it does feel great because sometimes the only things we hear are the things we need to improve on or when a parent is upset about one thing. So it does feel really good to get recognized for the hard work that you do.”

Do you know a central Arkansas teacher who works hard every day to inspire his or her students to learn, reach goals and dream? Click here and nominate him or her for one of our 2020 Amazing Educator Awards!

See more of this year's Amazing Educators.