Aiken County Public School District Teacher of the Year Dr. Elisabeth Hardy has experienced a great awakening. A powerful spirit of leadership has arisen from her soul that she says has always existed, but which she had never fully tapped into.
Everything changed last spring after she was selected District Teacher of the Year, and nothing has been the same since – which is a great thing for the many teachers across Aiken County who now count her as a confidant and friend.
In the intervening months following that announcement, Dr. Hardy, who serves as an English instructor at North Augusta High School, has connected with colleagues in the District and across the United States while presenting in Augusta and Savannah, Georgia, and then Columbia, Myrtle Beach and Charleston in South Carolina. In February, she was the first educator in the Palmetto State named as a 2018 South Carolina Teacher of the Year finalist. The announcement date for the 2018 Teacher of the Year winner is May 3.
Following are excerpts from a recent interview with Dr. Hardy in which she looks back at her experience as District Teacher of the Year during the 2016-17 school year, examines how that experience has helped her grow, and envisions what the future of the profession might look like.
ACPSD COMMUNICATIONS: WHAT HAS THE 2016-17 SCHOOL YEAR BEEN LIKE AS DISTRICT TEACHER OF THE YEAR?
ELISABETH HARDY: “One of the things I do not think I had thought through before, simply because I hadn’t verbalized it or heard anyone speak about it, was the whole concept of being a teacher-leader. I knew I did things because they were things I felt like I needed to do, but that concept I saw more as someone who went into administration. My whole understanding of that changed when I took on this role. Being a school district Teacher of the Year is a role no one can really prepare you for – there is so much more to it than anyone understands. Not only are you part of the statewide teacher forum, but you are a spokesperson and people will have questions and expect you to be knowledgeable about things. That played to some of my strengths because I was already active in bringing in young people to the profession and acting as a supervisor for student teachers and promoting Teacher Cadet, but I started speaking at conferences and sharing my knowledge because that was very important. I also began writing more, and the more I wrote the more I began to collaborate with others. That effort broadened my horizons and made me question some of the things I held as values in the classroom and forced me to better articulate what I believed and what I felt was important. While I have participated more in our staff development here in Aiken County, I have also been involved in regional and national efforts as well. I delivered more presentations on literacy, but I am focusing now on empathy and caring because I believe those are huge components that factor into not only literacy, but also the success of at-risk student populations and Advanced Placement and honors students as well. I have tried to break out of that mold of a typical teacher and become more of a teacher-leader. I have also tried to be a leader regarding policy matters while serving as an Advanced Placement advocate. We need to change those commonly held beliefs of what those types of classes are like, who should be participating and what the advantages are for all students. All of those things are of huge importance. I do not think I had ever articulated my beliefs in those areas or taken a stand or even spoken publicly about them so that vantage point of being the Teacher of the Year for the District allowed me to grow in those areas, and that has been huge for me personally.”
ACPSD COMMUNICATIONS: HOW HAS THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING TEACHER OF THE YEAR INSPIRED YOU AND MADE YOU MORE CONFIDENT SERVING AS A TEACHER-LEADER?
ELISABETH HARDY: “Being a part of the Aiken County Teacher Forum has been amazing. Elizabeth Supan and Rosalyn Green have a vision for our teachers, and working with them has just been incredible. The encouragement I have received from so many as part of a group of educators who want Aiken County to experience growth and see improvement and who are passionate about those things, has been incredible. That interaction and support really helped. It pushed me outside of my comfort zone for sure, simply because I had only been working in Aiken County for four years prior to being named Teacher of the Year for the district. That was astounding to me, and very humbling. I know teachers on the staff here at North Augusta High School who are fantastic educators and also worthy of being Teacher of the Year. Across this District there are countless others who are doing a tremendous job and really making a difference in the lives of their students. Stepping in front of a group of educators like that and speaking about my beliefs took some moxie, but I have made many new friends and I feel much better equipped now to speak about important topics and help others to articulate their beliefs as they aspire to become teacher-leaders themselves. We need our best teachers to remain in the classroom, but we also need them to share their knowledge with others. They have a remarkable ability to do that and we need to empower them to do that. We need to make sure they understand they have a voice and they have the ability to make a difference across a much larger spectrum. I think giving them that voice and platform is important.”
ACPSD COMMUNICATIONS: COULD YOU ELABORATE MORE ON THE MANY PARTNERSHIPS AND COLLABORATIONS YOU HAVE UNDERTAKEN DURING THE 2016-17 SCHOOL YEAR?
ELISABETH HARDY: “Absolutely. They have been amazing. I have worked here at North Augusta High School with teachers Chris Emerling and April Koontz on several presentations. Mr. Emerling has been very helpful in making sure that I am getting the most from my classroom’s Full Circle Technology grant because he is so very knowledgeable in the use of the most up-to-date technology, and Ms. Koontz is just an amazing teacher who I have learned so much from just bouncing ideas off one another. Especially regarding literacy, we wanted to be able to share those ideas with non-English teachers, and specifically math and science teachers, who do not feel they have the tools to teach literacy in their classrooms. We wanted to give those teachers something in a single presentation that they could implement in their classrooms immediately and we were able to do that. I have also worked with colleagues in other school systems on school culture. We have looked at how the interactive culture among teachers and administrators and teachers can affect the culture of a school as a whole and how it affects student performance. We have been doing a lot of research and writing collaboratively and just working to find those important issues and meeting people who share a passion for those issues and then developing ideas and probing for solutions alongside them. It has been very important and rewarding. Working collaboratively with other educators really helps me grow and pushes me to keep working and presenting even more.”
ACPSD COMMUNICATIONS: YOU HAVE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO TEACH IN A NUMBER OF DIFFERENT AREAS OF THE COUNTRY. WHAT HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE TEACHING HERE IN AIKEN COUNTY BEEN LIKE?
ELISABETH HARDY: “What we have here in Aiken County, and what I have experienced here at North Augusta High School is something so special that I can’t even describe it to you. I have taught in many, many places and here at North Augusta High School and in the department in which I work we have amazing teachers who are committed to working as a team and I have not had that sort of camaraderie and cohesiveness in some of my prior experiences. Sometimes things can become territorial among educators and that is just not been the case here, and it is something I have found to be very refreshing. What we have here in Aiken County and at North Augusta High is just great. I attribute the entirety of what we have here as being what has most allowed me to have been named as a state Teacher of the Year finalist because it is not a singular effort that allows someone to be there – it is a group effort. It takes a village. All the support systems that come together for teachers here just seem to happen, and you do not even really have to ask for help. Those types of things do not happen in places where people are not committed to the whole, or where you do not have an administration in place that fosters those types of relationships. We have all those things here at North Augusta High School, and I think that is indicative of what we have across Aiken County.”
ACPSD COMMUNICATIONS: WHAT DOES YOUR VISION FOR THE FUTURE OF THE TEACHING PROFESSION IN SOUTH CAROLINA LOOK LIKE?
ELISABETH HARDY: “What I envision is a future in which we empower those teachers who I call “The Irreplaceables” who are those leaders in their departments with the ability to become multi-classroom teachers. I would like to give them the opportunity to influence those younger teachers who covet that one-on-one time with a master teacher, or those teachers who have been in the profession for a while but who need someone to come alongside them and encourage them and help build them up. We know there are teachers out there who just need a little bit of encouragement to become the teachers they can really be, so having those teacher-leaders in place to help those educators would be invaluable. Most of our master teachers do not have the physical ability to teach every student in their school, but by assisting other teachers in their development, they do have the opportunity to influence each student in their building. As a team, they may be able to address and tackle those problems that a singular teacher may not be able to grasp or overcome on their own. In an environment like that, you have a teacher who has a leadership role, but who is also continuing to do that thing that he or she feels is their calling or passion – TEACHING! So many of us feel like the classroom is that place where we need to be and where we can have the greatest impact and make the biggest difference. But giving teachers the ability to have voice, autonomy, agency and authority in that realm not only impacts everyone for the good, but it helps us to keep those irreplaceable teachers and teachers who could be the next generation of irreplaceable teachers but who are currently leaving the profession altogether. That is something that is huge and something that has tremendous potential for positive systemic change here in Aiken County and across our state. I think we should also be much more involved in things that are taking place in the state Legislature that affect our profession. Far too many of our teachers just do not know what is going on and that needs to change. There are bill proposals that we really need to speak out against or support, whichever may be our preference. Teachers are professionals and we need to present ourselves as professionals, and until we do the rest of the world will not see us as such. It’s predicated upon us to do so.”
ACPSD COMMUNICATIONS: THE STATE TEACHER OF THE YEAR ANNOUNCEMENT IS QUICKLY APPROACHING (MAY 3). WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS AS THAT DAY DRAWS CLOSER?
ELISABETH HARDY: “I would love to win the state Teacher of the Year award, there is no doubt about that, but there is a part of me that is torn about it because it would also mean missing a year of instruction in the classroom here at North Augusta High. I am sure the possibility of missing that time in the classroom is something that has crossed the mind of each one of the Teacher of the Year finalists. However, serving as the state Teacher of the Year would simply be a dream come true as an educator. It would afford me the opportunity of traveling across the United States while meeting educators that are even more amazing in their fields. Being able to learn and present with such talented educators on a national level and then being able to bring those things back here to Aiken County is a potential opportunity that is very exciting to me. ”
LINK TO DISTRICT PRESS RELEASE: 2017 PR DR BETH HARDY SPEAKS UP