It’s been a big year for Jennifer Ainsworth.
The 2015 S.C. Teacher of the Year has visited classrooms all around the state and even met President Obama in the White House, but she’s always kept her heart set on one thing: students with disabilities.
“The best part about this journey is being able to have my students represented, and we were able to spread the message of acceptance and respect for students with disabilities,” Ainsworth, 43, said.
Showcasing the talents, personalities and dreams of special needs students has the greatest impact on other students around the state who realize the similarities they have with students with disabilities, according to Traci Hogan, executive director of federal programs for Horry County Schools.
“Jennifer’s students don’t have any problems being included at Socastee, and that’s because of Jennifer,” Hogan said. “That’s been something that’s really opened the eyes of other teachers and students around the nation.”
Ainsworth is a special education teacher who teaches Socastee High School’s mild to moderate special needs class, with students from ages 14 to 21 who are learning work skills, life skills and academics to be productive citizens. She took a year off teaching to perform her Teacher of the Year duties and will return to the classroom in August.
She is known for her passion and dedication to her students, and for going above and beyond to provide them with opportunities for recreation and to participate in the community.
Ainsworth was named S.C. Teacher of the Year last May, raking in the title no other Horry County educator has ever won. She started her teaching career at Socastee High when principal Paul Browning hired her in 2006. Browning said he’s “just tickled” about Ainsworth’s success.
“She is so positive and accepting, and does everything she can to bring people together,” Browning said.
Ainsworth’s ability to connect with students and spread special needs awareness makes her a valuable asset to the Socastee High family, Browning said. The high school is ready to have her back in the classroom come August.
“I think she’s had a wonderful year, but I miss her terribly here,” Browning said. “We really want to see her come back.”
Her mission this year has been to spread acceptance and respect for special needs students. Several of Socastee High’s special needs students have accompanied Ainsworth to various events, performing songs and greeting everyone with a warm smile.
Those performances – and interactions between Ainsworth’s students and others – have been “life-changing” for some.
“People start to realize that we’re more alike than different,” Ainsworth said. “The acceptance of special needs people is spreading, and that has been my goal.”
The inclusion of special needs students in Ainsworth’s adventures has the greatest impact on other students and teachers around the state, Hogan said. The ability to help educators realize the importance of including special needs students in events – both in and out of the classroom – has been one of Ainsworth’s talents.
“Horry County Schools is so proud of her,” Hogan said. “We’re certainly ready for her to be back.”
The theme of Ainsworth’s TOY stint is “The Anchor Holds,” which references an old gospel song. Teachers must be the anchor in the classroom, always showing love and acceptance to all students; especially those who may not receive affection elsewhere. Everything a teacher does or says must uplift the child at the end of the day.
“Adults can fuss and fight,” Ainsworth said. “But at the end of the day it’s all about the children, and everything will eventually fall into place.”
During her year stint she participated in a one-year residency program at the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, and served as a statewide ambassador for the profession.
“They can give you the ambassador title, but once you go on that journey you see that it’s so much more,” Ainsworth said.
Aisnworths’ travels have been a family journey as well as academic. Her father has traveled with the S.C. TOY for most national events, including a trip to Washington, D.C. and Phoenix, Ariz. Her mother – a fellow teacher – died in 2011 just before Ainsworth won Socastee High’s teacher of the year award. Her two teenage sons and husband have also spent some time on the road.
The chance to share her travels with family – who have been “troopers” during the year – has been surreal, she said.
“My dad has been my right-hand through all this, encouraging me,” Ainsworth said.
Ainsworth’s title as S.C.’s top teacher comes to an end later this month when she passes the torch onto Suzanne Koty, a Sumter High School English teacher. Ainsworth will return to Socastee High School in August to once again answer her calling.
“This chapter of my book is closing, but I’m excited about going back to the classroom next year,” she said.
“That’s where my heart is.”
Contact CLAIRE BYUN at 626-0381 and follow her on Twitter @Claire_TSN.