With a philosophy of “love first, teach second,” Maysville Elementary School third-grade teacher Aja Ledford was named Teacher of the Year for the Jackson County School System Oct. 16.
The announcement, made during an after-school faculty meeting at MES, was greeted with cheers and applause from her colleagues — and a cake, flowers and balloons delivered by April Howard, superintendent of schools; Todd Nickelsen, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning; Selena Blankenship, JCSS human resources director; and Michelle Archibald, MES principal.
Ledford was emotional in her thanks, and she credited all the staff at MES for the work they do every day for their students.
“It’s a great place to be,” Ledford said. “Everybody in this building works so hard.
“You guys all share this with me,” she said, “because it’s all of us together as a team.”
Howard noted that Ledford “was up against some pretty stout competition,” and joined Ledford in praising the staff.
“You have taken your arms and wrapped them around all kids, and you’ve embraced whatever needs they have and you’ve just been absolutely committed to improvement, and it’s showing.
“We look at CCRPI (the state’s College- and Career-Ready Performance Index), but what we see every day in anecdotal evidence and the progress that you are making incrementally is so, so meaningful. You are changing kids' lives, you are changing the trajectory for entire generations because you are giving them hope. That’s what we stand for, that’s what we believe in, and you’re a big part of that,” she added, with a big smile for Ledford.
“You’ve touched a lot of lives for many years. Thank you.”
A member of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, Ledford has been a teacher for nine years, focusing on third grade for the last two years. She previously taught first grade at MES and at West Jackson Primary School.
She earned degrees in early childhood education — a Bachelor of Arts from Gainesville State College and a Master of Arts from Piedmont College — and is presently working on an Education Specialist degree in curriculum and instruction at Piedmont College.
“Building relationships with kids and earning their trust is the first step toward educating them,” she wrote in one of her Teacher of the Year essays, and she noted that she is dedicated to educating and developing every child’s full potential.
Reading – and the strategy groups and student conferences she uses as part of her instruction – are a passion for her.
“The passion comes from getting to know each student as a reader and using this knowledge to diagnosis reading needs,” she says.
“Strategy lessons and conferring are all about coaching your students, providing feedback, and building relationships. These lessons define me because they are based on trust between teacher and students.”
Ledford says the power that conferences and strategy lessons give students also makes them more confident readers.
“I will never forget the day last year I sat down to confer with a student, and he took over the conference,” Ledford recalled. “He was so excited about reading, and I could tell that my passion for strategies had also become his passion.
“He said, ‘Let me tell you about this strategy and how it works in this book.’ He was on fire for reading, and his excitement and confidence was pouring out of him as he read.
“By the time he finished reading the page and explaining his strategy to me, I was sitting there in tears.”
Ledford said that, at the beginning of the year, the student had no confidence and did not want to read to her, but now he could share his newfound love of reading with others, including the principal and his second-grade teacher.
“In just a year, the use of conferring and strategy lesson had taken this non-reader to someone who went on a tour around the school, reading,” she said.
Ledford will now move on to the state-level competition as the representative for JCSS. Asked what message she’d like to carry forward as Teacher of the Year, Ledford said she would like for everyone to understand that “we must change our mindset.”
“Our school’s current initiative is implementing ‘The 7 Mindsets,’” a framework for social-emotional learning, she said. “This program is so impactful, my message to stakeholders in Georgia is based on these fundamentals.
“Parents – I encourage you to ‘Dream Big’ for your children. To try and expose them to as many opportunities as they can and to see beyond the normal everyday things they encounter. Parents can encourage their children to ‘Dream Big’ for themselves and help them understand that anything and ‘Everything is Possible.’
“Teachers – I encourage you to remember ‘Passion First’ – it is contagious! What brought you into this profession? What are you still passionate about? ‘We Are Connected.’ Every relationship we build, every life we touch is going to in turn touch another life. That a simple gesture or moment with a student can impact generations to come.
“Ask an adult about a favorite teacher and they will recall how that teacher made an impact on their life. We have the opportunity to help students realize that ‘Everything Is Possible,’ and they can change their current situation and make it better.
“Students – I want to remind you that you and only you are ‘100% Accountable’ for your future and your choices. You can make tomorrow whatever you want it to be based on your choices today.
“When thinking about your future focus on your ‘Passion First’ and ‘Everything Is Possible.’ Always surround yourself with people that believe in you and have high expectations for you.
“Public – Let’s all remember ‘Kindness Is Contagious.’ If we enter into each new day trying to show kindness we can improve the world around us,” she wrote.
Ledford follows Shannon Lawrence, who represented JCSS in the Georgia competition last year. At the time he was a career, technical and agricultural education teacher at Jackson County Comprehensive High School. He now leads the work-based learning and youth apprenticeship program for the school system.
Other finalists this year were Stephanie Cleveland, West Jackson Elementary School music teacher, and Jessie Wood, social studies teacher at East Jackson Comprehensive High School.
The three finalists were chosen by a panel that reviewed all ten building-level winners’ written essays and interviewed them; the panel observed them at work in their classrooms Oct. 15.
Other elementary school building-level winners, named in September, were Ellie Baldwin, East Jackson; April Duffey, Gum Springs; Hannah Doster, North Jackson; and Amanda Carmichael, South Jackson. Derek Davis and Amy Myers were the winners for East Jackson and West Jackson middle schools, respectively; and Craig Ellis was the winner at Jackson County Comprehensive High School.