It’s been said that nothing contributes more to the success of the Petal School District than its people.
Out of that core group, two of the most outstanding were recognized last week during the district’s mid-year convocation, when Petal Upper Elementary School Principal Emily Branch was honored as Administrator of the Year and Petal High School teacher Ben Austin as Teacher of the Year. As part of the award, Branch and Austin will now represent the school district in the state competition for Administrator and Teacher of the Year.
In addition to Branch and Austin, a teacher from each school in the district was named a Teacher of the Year for that particular school: Jody Hawkins from Petal Middle School, Teresa Inmon from Petal Upper Elementary School, Andrea Pickett from Petal Elementary School and Mollie Thies from Petal Primary School.
Branch began her career with the Petal School District in 2004 as a first-grade and kindergarten teacher. During that time, she served as a Professional Learning Community leader and a leader of the district’s English Language Arts cohort and was named the district’s Teacher of the Year in 2010.
In 2013, she began the principal corps program and became the assistant principal at Petal Upper Elementary the next year. She has served as principal at the school since 2017.
“It is an amazing honor to be named Administrator of the Year for the Petal School District, especially considering the long history of success that our district has had,” Branch said. “(After being named Teacher of the Year), it’s especially meaningful to me, 10 years later now, to be Administrator of the Year.
“I’ve come up through the ranks and grown as a professional here in this district. So many people here have mentored me and poured into me, so it’s just a really special accomplishment.”
Branch said considering the level of talent in the district, she was pleasantly surprised to hear she’d been given the honor.
“There are so many administrators in our district who are so deserving of this honor, so I was very surprised when they called my name,” she said.
In honor of the achievement, the Petal Education Foundation will present Branch with an award, and the teachers and staff at the upper elementary school have already been making cards and posters in celebration of their principal.
“I’m always excited about what’s on the horizon,” Branch said. “The teachers here at Petal Upper are constantly innovating and creating new ways to engage students, and I so look forward to seeing what the new year and the new decade hold for my staff and for the students at Petal Upper.”
Austin started with the school district in 2016 as a 10th-grade World History teacher. Currently, he teaches 9th-grade Advanced Placement Geography, 10th-grade World History and 10th-grade Accelerated World History.
“Number one, I felt very undeserving (of the honor),” Austin said. “For me, knowing that even a fourth-year teacher can have an impact that broad – not only within a profession with my colleagues, but also with students – I was humbled.
“It just lit the fire to the flame to know that I do desire to be a teacher, and it also lets me know that what I do and desire to do is quite successful.”
Like Branch, it was quite a surprise to Austin when he found out he’d been honored.
“I looked down the row, and I saw many experienced teachers,” Austin said. “Even though I was satisfied with the work I’d done, it was still a surprise.”
Austin grew up a long way from Petal – in Peru, in fact, where his parents were working as missionaries.
“So that was another reason why (Teacher of the Year) came as a surprise to me,” he said. “Not because I thought someone from Petal would have been chosen, but instead I have enjoyed becoming a part of what Petal and the Petal School District offer. Just to know that Petal is now my home, and it’s my greater family, it’s a huge encouragement to see.”