Jennifer Ainsworth will see the first day of school in a new light when she drops off her oldest son Will at Socastee High School to begin his freshman year.
Ordinarily, the special education teacher would be inside the school, greeting parents and welcoming her students back for another term, but her new role as S.C. Teacher of the Year will have her out of the classroom for 2014-15 and on the road as an ambassador for public education.
“It’s going to be strange, having the regular mommy experience,” Ainsworth said. “The day will be bittersweet. I will miss my daily interaction with my students, but I’m excited about the possibilities for the year.”
Ainsworth made history in April when she became the first educator to bring the state’s top teaching honor home to Horry County Schools. The award came with $25,000 and the use of a new BMW – and she gets a new model every 10,000 miles. It’s a necessary perk she will need over the next year as she travels around the state to a multitude of events and speaking engagements. Requests for her time began pouring in almost as soon as she won the Teacher of the Year title, and they won’t be stopping any time soon.
“She’s a celebrity in South Carolina, and different groups want to hear her story,” said Jenna Hallman, a former state Teacher of the Year who is assistant director/program director for Teaching Fellows and National Board at the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement (CERRA). “They know how busy she will be, and they want to get her on their calendars.”
Ainsworth has taught the mild to moderate special needs class for seven of the last eight years at Socastee High, where she launched her career at the age of 34. Her state win was no surprise to her students, parents or colleagues, who have said she makes teaching look effortless in an environment that others may find challenging.
She is famous for her passion and dedication to her students, who are with her from ages 14 to 21. She teaches them work skills, life skills and academics so they learn to be productive citizens and goes above and beyond to provide them with instruction and participation in the community, as well as recreational opportunities.
State winners are empowered to determine the message they think will resonate with the teachers, students and officials they meet during the time they serve, Hallman said, and many are inspirational, as Ainsworth is when she talks about her work in special education. She said teacher leadership is encouraged, and Ainsworth will participate in activities such as Leadership South Carolina, alongside other state business leaders, and a one-year residency program at CERRA.
Ainsworth said she already has been working with CERRA’s Teacher Cadet program, a course taken by high school seniors who are interested in teaching, and Teacher Fellows, a fellowship/forgivable loan program for high-achieving students who are interested in teaching and recruited as high school seniors. Other projects center on teacher leadership, including five regional forums she is organizing for new district Teachers of the Year, with one set for Myrtle Beach in February.
“I have met so many people, and I am seeing different people’s perspectives,” said Ainsworth, adding this is an especially challenging year because of the changes taking place in S.C. education, including the new state standards that are currently being rewritten. “I find out what works and what doesn’t work in teachers’ classrooms, and the high school students are just so excited and desperate for any information about the profession.”
Ainsworth also has chosen to work closely with S.C. Future Minds, a nonprofit that provides a path for businesses and individuals to contribute to public education, and help students and teachers acquire the supplies they need.
“This benefits all teachers and is so underused,” Ainsworth said. “Everything is approved by the school system, and we need to bring it to the forefront.”
The group’s website, www.scfutureminds.org, features a button — which schools can put on their own web pages — that makes it easy for people to donate directly to schools. The group also facilitates product donations, such as the 20 tons of Mueller’s spaghetti that already has been donated to 600 schools, but only about half of the state’s schools participate, said Executive Director Trip DuBard.
“It’s not easy to give to an elementary school online,” DuBard said. “You can only give when schools sell things you maybe didn’t want, and they only get to keep half of what they get. … When you’re Teacher of the Year, you’re honored and elevated, but no action is expected of you — this is one of Jennifer’s plans, to help get the word out.”
Ainsworth’s new position also puts her in policy-setting circles, and she met with Gov. Nikki Haley Monday along with members of the Palmetto State Teachers Association board.
“I realize I am a voice for all teachers, and it was a great opportunity for teachers’ voices to be heard,” Ainsworth said. “It was a time to openly share ideas, and I was able to speak with her about students with intellectual disabilities and make sure their voices are heard.”
Ainsworth’s new position also puts her in contention for national Teacher of the Year honors and gives her a shot at a larger platform. She will meet President Barack Obama in the spring when the winner is announced in Washington, D.C.
South Carolina has had two national Teachers of the Year but is well overdue for a third. Martha Stringfellow took the honor in 1971, and the 2015 ceremony will come 30 years after Therese Dozier’s 1985 win.
Ainsworth will be working on the requisite application for the national title, along with everything else she has to fit around her hectic travel schedule. Hallman said Ainsworth — like every Teacher of the Year — was advised to make sure to have at least one home-office day a week, where she can literally sit in her home, do reports, work on speeches and plan.
“Having that day is key so she doesn’t burn out,” Hallman said.
“It’s important for the public to understand that this experience is two-fold,” Hallman said. “First, she’s an advocate for public education, and what a great representative she’s going to be for that.
“The other part is the growth she’s going to experience, and she’s going to learn so much … At the end of my term, I was a very different person, a very different educator. She can take that back to her home district, so it does benefit the district as well.”
Ainsworth said she is having fun, despite the heavy travel, and her family will be able to join her (at their own expense) on some of her trips. She also plans as often as possible to include her Socastee students, such as Ezra Tribble, who will accompany her to a conference at Charleston Southern University in September.
“I tell [teachers] you have to be flexible, and you have to advocate for your students,” Ainsworth said. “As long as they put their students first, everything else falls into place.”