McKayla Hodges Hester, a kindergarten through third-grade intervention teacher at Vincent Elementary, was honored December 2 by the Shelby County Board of Education and the Shelby County Schools Education Foundation as the 2021 Elementary School Teacher of the Year.
Hester has been teaching for eight years, the past two of which have been at Vincent Elementary. In addition to her teaching duties, she also serves on the Problem Solving Team helping teachers to plan and implement tiered interventions for students who need more intensive academic support. She also serves on the school’s Parent Involvement Committee and is the sponsor of the Reader Leaders student leadership team and co-sponsor of the VES News Team.
Hester said teaching reading, especially phonics, is not for the faint of heart.
“It involves a decent amount of struggle, repetition, and sometimes tears. I have spent most of my teaching career trying to push students to their full potential. I am not one to give up quickly and I expect that same level of perseverance from all of my students.”
Hester added that it isn’t the extravagant project or a substantial collaborative effort among students that defines her as a teacher, but rather the small group lessons that are gritty, differentiated for all students’ needs, and intentional.
“I think of the ah-ha moments I have watched students experience throughout the years,” she said. “These moments range from discriminating between the letters b and d to evaluating specific claims in a text to support an argument. There is just something about looking in the eyes of students that have finally conquered what is holding them back. They have slain the dragon, and I am the lucky one that gets to watch it all unfold.”
Teaching through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be especially challenging for Hester, who was diagnosed with breast cancer this summer. But, the perseverance she expects from her students is what also drives her to keep teaching.
“Being an effective teacher drives me to move when my body can barely stand, to fight when I feel like giving up, and to smile when I feel like my world is crashing down around me,” Hester said.
Teaching during the pandemic has also taught Hester to show grace to everyone involved in the educational process, including students and parents who may have been impacted by lost jobs or homes that were foreclosed on during the pandemic.
“‘Normal’ no longer exists,” she said. “Kindness and empathy can go a long way. Understanding the stories of our students’ families and our colleagues allows for everyone’s voice to be heard and respected. But most importantly, no matter what challenges we face in life, we must be resilient and persevere. I hope that one day my students look back and remember that we all have the strength to learn without a classroom, love without touching, and live without fearing the future.”