Aiken County native Chanda Jefferson will represent teachers across the state as the new South Carolina 2020 Teacher of the Year, but her local roots and community ties run deep and strong.
She developed a love for school and education attending Jefferson Elementary, Langley-Bath-Clearwater Middle School and Midland Vally High School. She still remembers all of her teachers' names going back to 4K.
She grew up in St. Phillip Missionary Baptist Church in Beech Island, where her mom, Martha Jefferson, always made sure she helped the elderly. In high school, she drove kids and teens in the church van to House of David Ministries in North Augusta for choir and toured the CSRA presenting youth programs.
“I wanted to create a positive outlook for teens,” Jefferson said Friday during a telephone interview. “That's really when I got connected to loving teens and being able to help adolescents during a critical time in life.”
And although she teaches in Fairfield County and lives just down I-77 in Columbia, Aiken County will always be her home.
“I'll never forget my roots,” Jefferson said. “I tell my students where you come from doesn't dictate where you go and what you can achieve. I always remember where I come from.”
Jefferson, who teaches life sciences from Biology I to AP Biology for grades 9-12 at Fairfield Central High School in Winnsboro, was named the state's top teacher Wednesday during a reception at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. She was one of five finalists.
Working with teens at church led Jefferson to teaching, but education wasn't her first choice when she got to USC Columbia.
“I thought I was going to go to college and major in biology and forget about all the things I did at home,” said Jefferson, who originally considered a medical career. “But I started tutoring in a program called Mad Science, and it made me think about the connection that I had with the community, helping the community and helping those in need. So I went into teaching.
“In the beginning, I didn't know how I would help others, but I knew that was what I was called to do. I started in education because I love kids and I love helping people.”
Jefferson's decision to teach also grew from he community roots. Her great-grandfather, the Rev. Austin Jefferson, gave the land to build what is now Jefferson Elementary in Bath and then was a high school for African-American students. And Dr. Frank Roberson, a longtime educator in Aiken County who is the executive director of Horse Creek Academy and is retiring at the end of the school year, is not only her uncle – her mom's baby brother – but also her mentor.
Jefferson also uses her home town to connect with her students from the first day of class.
“It's crazy. I say I'm from Beech Island, and I show them a picture of a beach and an island,” she said. “They gasp at first and say 'You live on this island,' but I say it's not like that. It's just a whole bunch of beech trees, so it looks just like where we are in rural Fairfield County. That builds their interest.”
And relationships – Jefferson's main focus in her students.
“The first moment I walk into the classroom I try to figure out my students' likes and dislikes. I learn about their families. I tell them about my family,” Jefferson said. “As I learn about them, I use that information in the classroom. So if they like football, I try to incorporate sports into the lesson or music – whatever it is that piques their interest, including pop culture.”
Jefferson called her lesson plans “non-traditional” and her teaching strategy “organized chaos.”
“It's not just kids coming to class, sitting in a row and remaining quiet. Kids are all over the place. They're interacting. They're collaborating with each other and engaging in the lessons.”
Jefferson said it's important for educators to create “experiences” for their students.
“Creating experiences makes learning more meaningful and long-lasting,” she said. “That's why I think my classroom is special. I try to create an environment that makes biology and science something the kids will never forget.”
Next year will be a year Jefferson will never forget.
As South Carolina's Teacher of the Year, she'll take a year off from the classroom to be an ambassador for all the state's teachers, traveling across the state to meet with them in a state-owned BMW she gets to drive for the year. She also received $25,000 on top of the $10,000 she earned as a finalist.
Jefferson will lead the state’s Teacher Forum, work with Teacher Cadets, participate in the Education Policy Fellowship Program and in Leadership South Carolina, one of the state’s oldest and most respected leadership programs.
“I'll showcase the classroom and what I call the magic that's happening in classrooms across the great state of South Carolina,” Jefferson said. “I'm looking forward to being able to see different places across our state and showcasing the teachers' and students' stories and learning about how education is impacting students and how we're preparing students for the future.
“I believe that the public education system in South Carolina is phenomenal because there are great things happening. I want to hear from teachers about what they need so I can share that with the South Carolina Department of Education and anybody who is responsible for making change in the system so that it will better our teachers' experiences and our students' experiences.”
But first, it's time to celebrate. The Fairfield County School District is honoring Jefferson with a parade – complete with a marching band and local dignitaries – at 10 a.m. today in Winnsboro.
Jefferson said she celebrates the education she received in Aiken County and all of those teachers whose names she remembers: Miss Thompson, Miss Bull, Miss Holley, Mr. Rivers, Mr. Sawyer, Miss Smith and Miss Glover among others. They helped make her the teacher she is today.
“All my teachers made a huge impact on my life and created a love for learning,” she said. “They made learning exciting for me and gave me hope as a student, and that's what I would like to instill in my students so I can inspire them and give them hope for the future as well.
“Going into the classroom, it made me think back to the time I spent in school and the education I was provided in Aiken County, and I thought this is how I'm going to make my mark on the world. I'll change the world one student at a time.”