Zakiya Byrams is a hero in every sense of the word. Early in her career, she donned the “super suit” of a United States Navy recruit and safeguarded the Seven Seas. Then, the Petty Officer 3rd Class took on a tour of duty in dress blues saving the life of a charge in her care as a Gwinnett County Sheriff’s deputy.
But her next act as a plain-clothed civilian, however, would prove to be her most challenging and fulfilling role.
Now, as a public-school teacher at Utopian Academy for the Arts Elementary in Ellenwood, Byrams is a general of the classroom committed to leaving no child behind.
When she walks the aisles between desks, she commands attention. Silence falls with the wave of her hand. Young scholars rise on call and their fears about learning something new are assuaged with a hug and a treat from the prize box.
“My students know what to expect from me, every day, because I don’t change—I’m fair, firm, and consistent,” Byrams said. “I want the best for them. I know what’s in them, and I just want to bring it out.”
Afterall, the mission is critical: Third grade is a pivotal year for academic knowledge and skills development in math, reading, and language arts that fuel the endurance of lifelong learners.
And in Georgia, third grade is the gateway for high stakes standardized testing. Eight-and-nine-year-olds must take the Georgia Milestones Exams, which evaluate their comprehension of objectives taught in the math and reading curriculum. The goal is for them to score on grade level by meeting or exceeding expectations on the pass-for-promotion test. If a student fails to grasp the concepts, they could be sent to summer school or retained. And Byrams doesn’t want that happening on her watch.
The new third grade teacher works diligently to prepare her scholars for success.
“Ms. Byrams is the best. If we don’t understand something, she stays with us and works with us until we understand everything in every single subject, so that we could do well on the Milestones,” said Andre Freeman, 9, one of her third graders.
“She’s smart, courageous, and willing to help anyone who needs it,” adds Braylon White, 8. “She made me believe in myself when I was afraid of taking the Milestones. But I took the test because I knew she believed in me.”
From the beginning of the year, we have always talked about what they needed to know, Byrams explained. “I followed the curriculum, adding assignments in areas that I knew they needed help in. I drilled them on the multiplication facts. We would do worksheets, sing songs from YouTube, and have contests. I have a closet full of prizes.”
Byrams is certified as a reading specialist and has an endorsement as a teacher of students with dyslexia. She began her 19-year career in education working as a special education teacher at Shiloh High School in Gwinnett County and later moved to Walton County. Prior to transferring to Utopian Academy, she taught special education at Dekalb Preparatory Academy.
As a new third grade teacher, Byrams makes self-reflection part of her daily routine: “I go home every day and ask myself. ‘What did I do today? How can I do it better?’ It’s not about me; it’s about the children.”
And when Byrams needs reinforcements, she turns to her team. Maxine Coleman, the instructional coach she refers to as “GOAT” (Greatest of All Time), helps to keep Byrams grounded. And when a child shows signs of having a learning disability, Byrams turns to Gylnis Terrell to help start the paperwork necessary for the scholar to access special education services. Byrams knows all too well that fast action is key to saving the day.
Fast action helped her to save the life of a woman as a Gwinnett County Sheriff’s deputy. Byrams was walking the second floor of the Gwinnett County Jail when she spotted an inmate twice her size in distress. “She was hanging over the rail proceeding to jump, and I reached over and pulled her back to safety,” Byrams said. “I got injured lifting her and now have titanium screws in my neck, but I took an oath to protect and serve. This was a human life.”
Byrams did some soul searching after getting injured in the line of duty. Her doctors told her that if she continued to work as a deputy and got reinjured, she could be paralyzed. So, she left her career of nine years and went back to college to earn her master’s degree in education at Grand Canyon University.
“Ms. Byrams is an enthusiastic teacher who loves her kids,” said Dr. Selina Walton, principal of UAFA Elementary. “We are happy to have her.”
At Utopian Academy, Byrams now keeps close watch over her third graders. They love the fact that she is both a veteran and a former law enforcement officer.
“My Byrams is the best teacher because she is nice and would save us from anything,” adds Jason Philpot. “She used to be in the military.”
And sometimes she surprises her students with special gifts.
When her third grader Evelyn Shabazz broke the zipper of a new boot at school, Byrams saved the day once more. “I called her mom, and I asked her could I purchase her some new sneakers,” Byrams recalled. “Her mother said, yes.”
Byrams delivered the new box of Converse high tops to Shabazz in time for the class sneakers and snacks party. “I feel great and very happy,” Evelyn said.
The school year went so well for Byrams and her third graders that the final day of school won’t be their last day together. She will follow them into fourth grade—as their teacher. “It’s been an amazing year.”
“She is the best teacher ever,” said Byrams’ student Kennedy Richmond. “I can’t wait to see her again in fourth grade.”