10 Educators Who Make a Difference
Each January, Upstate Parent features local educators who set the standard for what it means to influence the future. Chosen from your nominations, these professionals – classroom teachers, administrators and more – love their students, encourage them and pave the way for their success. We received a tremendous number of nominations this year and wish there was enough space to recognize them all. For all who invest in the education of tomorrow’s leaders, we are so very grateful.
Sara Austin keeps trying to retire, but her peers and students aren’t having it. Austin teaches seventh grade science at Hillcrest Middle School in Simpsonville. She has been at the school for 19 of the 54 years she has been teaching.
“I had a teacher in high school that I idolized,” she said. “She was a physical education teacher and I wanted to be like her.”
But before she entered the classroom, Austin survived plenty that helps her relate to her students. Her father was an alcoholic who died by suicide, something she isn’t afraid to discuss with families who need to hear her story. And her students see her as a real life hero when they learn that she spent two weeks in jail during the Civil Rights Movement.
“I went through a lot as a child,” she said. “A lot of students come to me with stuff. We just talk. I go to the altar every Sunday at church and pray for these kids.”
Austin makes it a practice to call parents with good reports about their children. She is used to others questioning how she can deal with middle school students.
“They are hormonal and have life changing,” she said. “I love them. I hug them. I just love them, even the ones who act up. When I walk up and down the halls in this building, the eighth grade kids all come up and hug me.”
And when asked about retirement – she already retired once but returned to teaching – Austin said she will know when it’s time.
“I feel like God put me here,” she said. “This is what I’m supposed to do. Some of them need me. We just get along. I just think it’s where I’m supposed to be.”
Renee Brown is helping many young women chart a new path.
Brown is a counselor at Mauldin Middle School where she leads by example and gives students the knowledge that someone is in their corner.
“I noticed a lot of girls ending up in my office,” she said. “I went to a conference and heard a speaker talking about your purpose in life. It was in January and I decided to start the mentoring program in the middle of the year.”
The mentoring program is BLUSH: Beautiful, Loveable, Unique Sisterhood, a name created by the girls who participate in it. It started with about 15 girls and one other teacher. Girls learn etiquette, public speaking, makeup, financial literacy and more. It has been so successful that Brown is in the process of establishing the program as a nonprofit organization that she can use to reach other communities.
On a recent day off from school, Brown was taking a group of former students on a college tour. She is investing in their future in a way that she knows will pay off. She saw that result recently when she was contacted by a former student who is now working on her master’s degree.
“When I look at my life, I had some great mentors who said, ‘you can do whatever you want in life,’” Brown said. “I tell my kids all the time that if I could afford it, I would do this for free. To me, it’s not just a career. It’s a ministry. Sometimes I am hard on myself. God will send a reminder every time. This is my purpose.”
Shiree Turner-Fowler wants to change the lives of children and she is doing that by supporting their teachers.
Turner-Fowler is an instructional coach at Alexander Elementary School in Greenville, but before a career in education, she had planned to become a social worker.
“I realized a lot of things going on in my community were because kids didn’t have access to a quality education,” she said.
Turner-Fowler became a teacher first in her home state of Washington and started teaching in South Carolina in 2011. She taught kindergarten at Monarch Elementary before moving to Hollis Academy and then to the instructional coach position at Alexander.
“As a classroom teacher, I was responsible for those 25 – 28 students,” she said. “If I can impact teachers, I can impact students. If our teachers don’t have what they need and they don’t feel supported, they can’t give their students 100 percent.”
In addition to providing resources and support, Turner-Fowler said she serves as a cheerleader for teachers.
“I see that as my role as well – to be a champion for the teachers so they can be champions for their students, so those students can be champions for their community and their world,” she said.
Turner-Fowler sees education, especially literacy, as a social justice issue. She is an advocate for creating curriculum that is equitable and then showing students that teachers believe they can do it, something that she sees as particularly important when working with students experiencing poverty.
“How do we create what they need to be successful?” she said. “They can achieve the same goals, but the way they get there might look different. And that’s OK.”
Carolyn Miller has a long commute, but the hugs and high fives waiting for her at school are worth every minute.
Miller retired from teaching in North Carolina and she still lives in Rutherfordton – just short of an hour’s drive away from her job as a fifth grade teacher at Drayton Mills Elementary in Spartanburg. She approaches her school and her students with a deep well of joy.
Miller retired in 2015 and then worked as a substitute teacher, which soon became an almost daily occurrence.
“My whole teaching career has been a blessing,” Miller said. “I feel like I have blessed a number of children, but they have blessed me. They have blessed me.”
From the beginning, Miller’s success in the classroom has stemmed from her relationships with her students. She loves them and they know it. Many years ago, Miller started celebrating the end of the school year with a day of fun at her house – lunch, dinner, movies and more.
“For the most part, I had my whole class here every year,” she said. “They just had the best time.”
One student even called Miller’s husband on Father’s Day.
“This has been a family effort,” she said. “I try to not just teach the academics but to reach the whole child and make every child feel loved.”
And after decades in the classroom, Miller started something new this school year – a simple but profound effort that she learned at a workshop. Students get their choice of a hug, a fist bump or a high five from Miller.
“It’s as simple as greeting the children at the door,” she said. “I can’t believe I’ve taught for 32 years and didn’t do this simple thing that has made such a difference. Just saying ‘good morning’ or giving a hug – how have I missed doing that? I learn something new every day.”
Sara Moore made her way to West View Elementary School in Spartanburg via teaching positions in Rock Hill and Charleston. She now makes her third grade classroom feel like home.
“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she said.
Having previously taught fourth grade, Moore said this first year in third grade has been an eye opener.
“There’s something about this year,” she said. “It’s an important year for kids. They’ve got this good basis in reading and math. You see those little light bulb moments. They still want hugs and love but they are ready to go deeper with their learning.”
Moore said the students engage in great conversations.
“But they also want to give you a hug at the end of the day,” she said. “There’s something about this age.”
Moore gets emotional when she talks about balancing the high expectations for her students with helping bridge the gap for what some need to get to there.
“I start every day with a ‘good morning’ and a high five,” she said. “They leave every day with a handshake, hug or high five. Every single one of them needs that, but for some kids, the only one in their corner is me.”
Moore’s investment in her students goes far beyond their grades. She is aware that her classroom is an important, stable space for them, where help is available and someone always cares.
“We should make sure, at the end of the day, that our kids are loved,” she said.
Ebony Nye becomes family to many of her students, and she is perfectly happy with that.
Nye teaches second grade at Sterling School in Greenville.
“I grew up in a very rural area of South Carolina near Charleston,” she said.
Though her parents did not go to college, Nye said she and her siblings were expected to do so. She uses her own experiences to reach her students.
“I try to help kids feel successful with what I struggled with, which was vocabulary,” she said. “Because it’s coming from me and they know a little bit of my story, they don’t feel like I am talking down to them. They also appreciate that I am not afraid to share who I am.”
Though she originally wanted to be an architect, Nye said family members and teachers were right when they suggested that education would be a good fit for her.
“Something about teaching just keeps me there,” she said. “I feel that’s where I make my mark in life.”
Because her own teachers felt like part of the family, Nye strives to create those same relationships with her students.
“When they are in my class, they are one of my kids,” she said. “If they have a need, I am trying to take care of it. I look at their parents as family. I don’t do office hours. They text me at any time. I think my families really appreciate that. That’s huge for my kids to know you have another adult looking out for you.”
In fact, Nye can often be found cheering her students on at extracurricular events.
“It’s all about relationships,” she said.
Maureen Phend is investing in tomorrow’s leaders.
In her third year as teen leadership teacher at Tanglewood Middle School in Greenville, Phend brings energy, humor and passion to the class, which is part of the schools related arts program.
“I was a semi driver,” she said. “I worked for a recycling company outside of Detroit. I’ve been a supervisor in a factory. I’ve been a cook.”
Phend was also a single mother to now grown children. She first worked with middle school children when she was just a little older than they were – first as a cook and then leading hikes at a summer camp.
When driving a truck became too physically demanding, Phend went back to school to become a teacher. Teen leadership is a class that reaches all three grades in middle school.
“We work mainly on speeches and community service and trying to do the best that we can for ourselves,” she said. They are instigating most of everything.”
Students have built a chicken coop and then hatched eggs, grown a garden and then learned to cook and more. Two of Phend’s students now plan to become chefs.
“They have responsibilities that they’ve never had before,” Phend said. “They are taking pride in what they do. They are coming up with ideas.”
After school, Phend leads cycling groups. Students learn bike safety and have traversed the Swamp Rabbit Trail and even the city’s Main Street.
“Because it’s so structured and stringent, they are getting used to rules,” Phend said. “Some of the kids don’t want to wear the vest or the helmet. If you want to be a part of the club, you have to. They realize there is a reason behind it.”
Whether in the garden or on the trail, Phend said she has found purpose in what she is doing. She arrives early and leaves late, all to help students work toward a bright future.
“I could spend all day at school,” she said. “It makes an impact on my life because I realize I am actually making a difference.”
Angie Stone is often the community’s first contact with her school.
As a media specialist at Chastain Road Elementary in Liberty, Stone shares her passion for technology with her students, incorporates literacy in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) projects and goes above and beyond to reach out to future students and their parents.
“I was a stay-at-home mom for about 10 years,” Stone said. “After my kids were 2 and 6, I decided I wanted to go back to school. I didn’t start teaching until I was 30. I’ve loved it ever since. I wanted to do something that impacted children. I wanted to carry that passion I have for reading – loving books and loving children.”
She has done just that by offering students opportunities for everything from 3D printing to writing and creating their own books. She also hosts Toddler Rock-N-Read, which provides books to families.
“I provide activities and we sing songs and do dances,” she said. “My main goal was to get books in kids’ hands. It’s basically just trying to reach out. A lot don’t know that they are supposed to be reading to their children. My goal is to increase that.”
The program also means parents feel comfortable at the school long before their children attend.
“We have to be so much more today to the kids we see,” she said. “You have to be a well rounded person in education. You have to care about what’s going on in their outside world, not just in the classroom.”
Brett Vaughn has fun celebrating the successes of her students and their teachers. For those around her, that enthusiasm is contagious and it communicates that she cares.
As principal of Stone Academy in Greenville, Vaughn, who lives in Spartanburg, has returned to the place where she got her start. Her first teaching job was at Stone and she replaced the principal who hired her 20 years ago.
Vaughn has been a teacher, an instructional coach, the coordinator of an International Baccalaureate program and an assistant principal. She also worked for the state in teacher recruitment.
“I spent a lot of time in Columbia talking to legislators,” she said. “In 2009, I decided I wanted to be back in a school.”
Vaughn’s focus is on her students and making sure they know they are valued.
“I make it a point to know every kid by name,” she said.
At Stone Academy, that means Vaughn learns the names of more than 600 students.
“I want them to believe in themselves,” she said. “They have to know I believe in them first. I spend time building those relationships.”
Vaughn said some of her favorite times with students are during the school’s after-school program.
“Knowing every kid and their story and what motivates them is important,” she said. “My philosophy is that every decision I make is based on the needs of the kids. I choose joy no matter what. When they walk in the door, I want them to experience a smile on my face.”
Alejandro Gabriel Victoria often goes well beyond his job description to make sure families in his community have a voice.
Victoria is a Spanish teacher at Byrnes Freshman Academy in Duncan. He is from Colombia, has lived in Brazil and Peru and speaks French and Portuguese, in addition to Spanish and English.
“I came to the U.S. five years ago to teach Spanish and literature,” he said. I started last year in high school. It has been a great experience. I originally came here to improve my English. I really love teaching kids here. They really appreciate all the cultural things behind the language.”
Victoria said many of his students have not had the opportunity to travel to other countries. Through his experiences, many are developing expanded knowledge and tolerance of other languages and cultures.
“They see me going through the process to learn a language,” he said. “They see me trying to communicate and that’s valuable. When they see that I speak English and French, even though I struggle, it shows them they can do that as well.”
Victoria also bridges the gap for Spanish-speaking families. He attended a program at the University of Georgia to become a certified interpreter. He now helps families and teachers communicate, providing a critical resource for IEP meetings and in other circumstances.
“It’s been a good experience to help parents in that way,” he said. “Now parents realize they have someone who can help them advocate for their rights. District Five has been amazing.”
Victoria was named the South Carolina Foreign Language Teacher of the Year in 2018. He inspires his students but also provides important representation and inspiration for those whose families are new to this country.
“When they see a Spanish teacher from South America who was able to go to college, they say, ‘if he can do it, I can do it,’” he said. “I tell them I used to do my homework on the ironing table. We didn’t have a dining table. I was able to get a scholarship. They can identify with me.”