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Contributed Photo from Hannah Beth Reeves / Hannah Beth Reeves, a preschool teacher from Chickamauga, Ga., has been named a Georgia Early Childhood Educator of the Year.

Hannah Beth Reeves, a preschool teacher at the Academy for Little People in Chickamauga, Georgia, has been named a Georgia Early Childhood Educator of the Year for 2021-2022.

Reeves is one of three inaugural winners of the award, which is given out by the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning and the Georgia Foundation for Early Care + Learning. The award recognizes outstanding early education teachers ages birth to preschool with an Infant Teacher of the Year, Toddler Teacher of the Year and Preschool Teacher of the Year.

The award for the toddler age group went to Maria Claudia Ortega from My Little Gen in Marietta, Georgia, and the winner for the infant age group is Diana Black from Pookie Bear Learning Center in Savannah, Georgia.

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As Educators of the Year, Black, Ortega and Reeves each received $3,000 for their personal use, $2,000 for a classroom makeover and up to $2,500 for their school to cover travel costs and stipends for substitute teachers who will cover for them as they fulfill their duties as Georgia's Early Childhood Educators of the Year.

Winners serve as ambassadors for Georgia's Early Childhood Educators of the Year program through activities related to modeling effective classroom practices and public speaking appearances.

"This is the first time that they have ever had this program, so I am actually the first person to ever win this award for the preschool age group, which is amazing. I am honored, really, that my director thought highly enough of me to nominate me," Reeves told the Times Free Press during a phone interview Friday.

"This job is already so rewarding because I get to watch kids grow up and build relationships with not just them but also with their families. I have students now, for example, who are the kids of students I've taught before. That's amazing. To be recognized for that work feels really good, and I'm thankful."

Reeves said she has already started putting her winnings to use in her classroom at the Academy for Little People. So far, she has purchased a projector to play music and movement videos, a new iPad and some furniture she intends to use in the school's "preschool corner." The remaining money she has will also go toward purchasing items for that space.

"That is going to be an area where we can do some really intentional teaching with those kids who are about to go to kindergarten. We will use that space to really work on some specific language skills and social skills they will need when they get into school," she said.

Of all the skills she works on with students, Reeves said she has learned language is the most important.

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Strong language skills ensure children are able to communicate about their needs, make friends and express themselves if something goes wrong in a classroom. That ability is vital, Reeves said, and said she can always tell when students have not had that socialization.

"I started working at the day care when I was 16, but I always went with my grandma who worked there before then, from the time I was 12, and what I really encourage parents to emphasize at home is language. Children learn so much just from playing and talking when they are young," she said.

"When they ask questions, answer them. Use big words and explain to them what they mean. Talk to them and listen when they talk back. If you do that, they're not as scared when they start school. They can play with other kids in a different way because they know how to communicate."

Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning Commissioner Amy Jacobs said helping children develop a strong foundation for lifelong learning, behavior and health through the development of social skills like those Reeves described is one of the reasons why she and Ortega and Black were chosen for their respective awards.

"The experiences children have in early care and education programs help shape the brain and the child's capacity to learn, develop important social skills and respond to daily stresses and challenges in a healthy manner," Jacobs said in a news release. "This new program honors exemplary educators and is another way to celebrate those teachers who are helping to build that foundation for lifelong learning and healthy development."

Among other requirements, candidates for Georgia's Early Childhood Educators of the Year must have been employed as a lead teacher in the age group for which they were nominated at a licensed 2- or 3-star Quality Rated child care provider that is in good standing with all programs administered by the state early learning department.

They also had to have a minimum of three years of experience as a lead teacher and plan to continue as a lead teacher in the 2021-2022 school year.

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"It's so exciting to finally have our inaugural Georgia's Early Childhood Educators of the Year winners," said Carrie Ashbee, executive director for the Georgia Foundation for Early Care + Learning. "The experiences children have in their classrooms help shape the brain and the child's capacity to learn and to get along with others. We can't say enough about the role these earliest teachers play in the life of a child, placing them on a successful path to lifelong learning."

Contact Kelcey Caulder at 423-757-6327 or