Aiken, SC (05/22/2023) — The University of South Carolina Aiken School of Education is proud to call local teachers their own. Each year, approximately eight to 10 alumni are named Teacher of the Year or First Year Teacher of the Year by the Aiken County Public School District.
Dr. Judy Beck, dean of the School of Education, says, "We keep track of our alums to see how they're doing in the classroom. It's always great to see the names of former students on Teacher of the Year lists."
Kimberly Mitchell and Matthew Drayer are two such alumni. For the 2022-23 school year, they were named Teacher of the Year and First Year Teacher of the Year, respectively, for Aiken Elementary School.
Mitchell is in her fourth year of teaching 4K for Aiken Elementary's Child Development Education Program. Prior to 4K, she taught first grade for 24 years. She says that USC Aiken's small campus and class size allowed her to feel part of a community and supported by professors.
"The individualized attention I received from professors helped with my own personal growth," she says. "They helped me develop self-awareness that allowed me to discover where my interests in education were-the primary grades."
Beck credits the School of Education's record of producing high-quality educators to the fantastic faculty and staff. "We support teacher candidates throughout their collegiate career. They also have a heavy dose of in-class experience with great mentoring from teachers and faculty who mentor and support them," she says.
Mitchell echoes the significance of the in-class experience. "Teaching assignments to a classroom full of children helped me understand that what an educator plans for may or may not happen the way the educator planned," she says. "These experiences made me realize that being an educator is a life-long learning career that gives us the opportunity to self-reflect and to take a self-directed approach to our teaching."
A large number of USC Aiken alumni are recognized with First Year Teacher of the Year awards, with Beck estimating 42 in the last five years. "We prepare them for the classroom," she says. "They hit the ground running as soon as they get started."
First-year teacher Drayer teaches in the Early Learning Special Education classroom at Aiken Elementary. Having worked full time as an Applied Behavior Analysis therapist while pursuing his teaching degree, the program's flexibility was key to reaching his goals. At that time, the School of Education had recently implemented a program that allowed students to take special education courses online.
He says, "This program was instrumental in allowing me to continue to work in the school system while also working toward my degree. Without this program, I do not know financially how I would have been able to attend university."
While it was a busy, challenging time in his life, the support from the School of Education faculty also helped him achieve his dream of being a teacher. "Teaching has been something I wanted to do since I was a child," he says. "As a person with several disabilities, it was a very hard path to get to where I am today. Throughout the process, Judy Beck was so encouraging and greeted me with a smile whenever she saw me. Melissa Martin was also very supportive of me. Her positive attitude and focus on doing what is best for the students always encouraged me to keep pressing on and working hard for my students."
Year after year, the large number of teaching awards presented to USC Aiken alumni demonstrates the School of Education's dedication to putting outstanding teachers in local classrooms. Many of them are proud to call Aiken home.
"Our alumni stay close because many are from this area. While they're with us, they spend a lot of time in Aiken County Public Schools for their in-classroom experience. They get to know them. They feel at home and want to stay."