Suzanne Koty, a Sumter High School English teacher, was named the 2016 South Carolina Teacher of the Year Wednesday night following a celebratory gala that served as a tribute to the teaching profession, the five finalists and all the district Teachers of the Year.
Rock Hill teacher Jeannie Durham was among the five finalists for state Teacher of the Year. Durham, who teaches eighth-grade science at Rawlinson Road Middle School, was named the Rock Hill school district’s Teacher of the Year in August.
Durham has been a teacher for 15 years, the last eight at Rawlinson Road Middle. Her love of education is rooted in her family. Her father was her high school principal and contributed to her decision to become a teacher.
Koty, who teaches English and the International Baccalaureate course called Theory of Knowledge, was introduced by state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman after a red carpet build-up that included a welcome band, evocative videos and stirring speeches.
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“I celebrate this with all of the finalists and all of the teachers of the year,” Koty said, noting that for once in her life she was speechless.
Koty initially worked as a medical assistant but found her career passion when she served as a substitute teacher in the Sumter school district. She won a grand prize of $25,000 and a new BMW to drive for a year. The four finalists each received a check for $10,000.
It was a night to pay homage to teachers and the role they play in molding the lives of children and adults. Former Gov. Richard “Dick” Riley, architect of 1984 education reform legislation that overhauled K-12 education, gave the keynote address and urged resolution of the decades-old funding inequities issue that keeps poor, rural school systems struggling and isolated.
“Many of you know first-hand and experience the challenges faced by students and teachers in low income, rural districts,” he said, so leaders must think expansively to devise a vibrant public school system. “We cannot lose another generation of children.”
The 2015 Teacher of the Year, Jennifer Ainsworth of Horry County, and the five finalists arrived in individual BMWs, pulling up to the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center as the drum line from Sumter’s Crestwood High School marching band played and crowds cheered. District Teachers of the Year followed on buses.
“It’s just so exciting and humbling,” said Stephanie Corley, who is Greenwood School District 52’s Teacher of the Year. “We can celebrate what we love to do.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of South Carolina’s Teacher of the Year gala. It is hosted by the S.C. Department of Education and SC Future Minds, a nonprofit that works to improve public education.
In addition to Koty and Durham, the other finalists for the prestigious award were:
▪ Daniel Oddo, a math teacher at Dreher High School, who left a career in school administration to return to the classroom. Oddo said he returned with renewed purpose to teach all students, especially those at risk of failure. He brought some of his students with him Wednesday night.
▪ Albert Robertson, a seventh grade social studies teacher at Meadow Glen Elementary School. Robertson, winner of the 2014 Palmetto State Social Studies Teacher of Excellence Award, credited his grandmother with instilling a love of learning.
▪ Hunter Jolly, a science teacher at Boiling Springs High School in Spartanburg District 2, who was most recently nominated for the 2014 Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science.
Buffy Murphy, the 2007 S.C. Teacher of the Year, predicted the coming 12 months would be life-changing for Koty.
Murphy, a teacher at Irmo Elementary School, said spending a year traveling the state, learning about education policy, meeting students, teachers and lawmakers “opens a window to the possibilities of influence that teachers can have.”
“I couldn’t wait to get back in the classroom,” she said. She returned to Irmo Elementary and now works as a response-to-intervention specialist and a reading coach.
But she said she was altered forever working under two former S.C. school superintendents, Inex Tenenbaum and Jim Rex, and remains committed to influencing education policy. She hopes the legislature will resolve the ongoing issue of inequities between poor, rural school districts and more affluent districts.
“For those who are working so hard with half the resources we have, it’s just not fair,” she said. “I do think we need to address that while not penalizing districts that have a lot of resources.”