Lexington 4 Teacher of the Year: My students say I'm silly

Kimmy Varner / Sandhills Elementary

February 11, 2010 

What inspired you to choose teaching as a career?

When I was a sophomore at USC, I worked as a camp counselor at the YMCA day camp. I knew I loved working with kids and I had thought several times about becoming a teacher, but that summer added a lot of clarity for me. I learned a tremendous amount from my kids, and it truly made me a better person - just knowing their stories, being a part of their lives. I adored them. In just a few short months, I developed significant and memorable relationships with these kids - I knew I wanted those types of relationships to be a part of my life forever. I returned to USC in the fall and changed my major.

If you were not an educator what would you like to do for a living?

I actually have two. When I was a little girl, I told my dad I wanted to be a police officer. He was pretty shocked and wondered how a mother could juggle such difficult hours and dangerous conditions. Still, the thought of "getting the bad guy" seemed exciting to me.

Now that I am a mother, I appreciate my dad's concern. I guess truly the only career I would want to do other than teaching is become a children's author. I love writing. I would be lost in life if I could not write what goes on inside of me. I grew up as the youngest child of a very large family - experiences from that adventure alone could supply me with enough material for my first series of chapter books!

What is one thing you have borrowed from your favorite teacher that you use in your classroom?

My silly sense of humor and laid-back attitude. To this day, I remember the tone, rhythm and volume of Mrs. Sausser's laugh. She always used fun to foster a conducive learning environment for us. Even when she was upset with us, she would fuss a little and then stick out her tongue and say, "Yay!! - now back to learning!" It was as though she used humor to forgive us, make us feel comfortable and make learning fun. I've tried to adopt that philosophy as well.

What would your students say you are best known for?

My students say I'm silly and they politely laugh at most of my attempts at humor. I have realized throughout the years they are really laughing at me, of course. I try to use humor to encourage them to listen to me. A joke here and there seems to reel them back in - even if it's temporary.

Some of my "material" is borderline self-humiliation really, but it makes them laugh and makes them happy, so it's completely worth it. My poor students - if they are gracious enough to offer me a chuckle for my efforts, I'll just keep going.

Obviously, our instructional time is precious, so it is quite impressive how well they are able to balance the mixture of silliness and seriousness throughout our day.

Described how you learned you were named Teacher of the Year in your district and how you celebrated?

It is tradition in my district that the entire Lexington 4 staff gets together on the last work day before summer finally begins. It is one of the few times we are all together as a district. It's been accompanied by breakfast in years past, but this year it was held at the end of our last work day.

That afternoon every member of the Lexington 4 staff filed into the gym of Sandhills Middle School. It was June and already sweltering hot. I remember fans were running as we watched a slide show of photographs from the school year. Dr. Lavendar and Mr. Toole called all of the individual school Teachers of the Year down to receive their awards. Then he had us all go back to our seats in the bleachers.

I sat there admiring my award. I noticed the brass name plate and the inspiring quote that circled the edges of the trophy. I couldn't help but show it to my friends sitting next to me.

At some point I heard Mr. Toole say, "And Lexington 4's District Teacher of the Year for 2009-2010 is - Miss Kimmy Varner!" Goosebumps stood at attention across my arms and legs. I was absolutely shocked. I put my hand over my mouth and told my legs to get moving. I heard applause and saw colleagues standing. I looked around and saw the faces of so many people I respected and cared about. I saw parents of previous students. I found my principal, Mrs. Evans, among the hundreds of faces. She was crying. Mr. Toole presented me with the DTOY plaque, which meant a lot to me. I have known him my entire teaching career. My cheeks ached from smiling so much.

Later, I put an entry in my writer's notebook so I would never forget the feeling of that day.

What recognition did you receive for becoming District Teacher of the Year?

I received a gorgeous plaque and a $1,000 stipend. More importantly, I have had some really interesting opportunities. For example, I had the honor of representing my district in a teacher forum with other District Teachers of the Year around the state. I have been able to meet the current S.C. Teacher of the Year, Bryan Coburn. He is amazing - uplifting and smart and incredibly inspiring. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to learn from him.

How do you see current economic conditions affecting your classroom, and how do you try to counteract that?

I can honestly say that I am lucky enough to work in a district that has managed the budget, funding and expenses so meticulously that teachers' classrooms are minimally affected.

Our superintendent makes every effort for teachers not to feel the effects of the current economic conditions. We have already had to cut over $800,000 this year and there is another budget cut coming soon.

As a district, we have been creative about where and how to save money. We have made an aggressive districtwide effort to cut down on energy costs. We have eliminated personal refrigerators and microwaves from classrooms, shut down computers and SMARTBoards when not using them during instruction. We make fewer copies and recycle and share more supplies from teacher to teacher. Also, district-wide we have received about $400,000 in technology grants.

We are teachers and that usually comes with a responsibility to teach the kids no matter how much money you have to work with.

What one item could you never do without in your classroom, and why?

I can't imagine ever teaching in classroom that didn't have an extensive collection and variety of books. I feel fortunate to have over 1,000 books in my classroom library. Books are the foundation for all of my teaching. N

Books allow my children to appreciate and try to grasp the rest of the world. In fact, books are so important to my teaching, I tell my kids if there ever is a real fire, "Everybody grab some books!" You know, just so we are not stranded watching the building going down in flames with nothing to read while we wait!

What has been your most memorable classroom moment over the past year?

I am looping teacher, which means I teach the same class for third and fourth grade.

Last year, around Obama's election time, my fourth-grade class got into a discussion. My class was very close - we were in our second year together. All of my students respected each other and we were at a level where we could have really remarkable conversations on a daily basis.

After a read-aloud one day, a conversation began between two students that absolutely shocked me. It was sadly clear to me that my students, at that time, did not understand about cultural differences and had used anger and harsh words against each other.

We had an emergency "Family Meeting." I asked the class how we were going to fix this. I taught them about the word "diversity." One student suggested maybe we should do a project about diversity. And so we did. It was this process that has been my most memorable moment over the past year. It was this moment where I got to watch children educate each other on their own culture, like and dislikes, and backgrounds.

I saw how respect between classmates grew even stronger than it was before. I was able to watch 22 fourth-graders become educated on cultural differences. It was absolutely amazing.

If you were named a finalist for S.C. Teacher of the Year, who will be the first non-relative you call?

I would call Dave Toole. He is the person that could see potential in me 10 years ago. He is the principal that noticed my ambition and passion and trusted that enough to hire me as a long-term substitute first, and then offered me a contract the following school year. Mr. Toole took a leap of faith when he hired me. I had just graduated from USC with an English degree. I only had a minor in elementary education. I was not certified and never had the chance to experience student teaching. However, he had confidence in me and he gave me the chance to make all this come true. And now, 10 years later, he still remains a respected friend, a colleague and a mentor.

ABOUT VARNER

Age: 32

School: Sandhills Elementary

Teaches: Third and fourth grades

Years at Sandhills: 8

Years as an educator: 10

Family: Son Jackson, 6, "the abso-lute core of my world!"

Academic credentials: Bachelor's in English, University of South Carolina; Critical Needs Certifica-tion, Coastal Carolina University

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