Early inspiration from teachers and passion to positively impact students drive their careers
Amy Carter and Christina Melton both had teachers who inspired them to choose education as a profession. Both are alumnae of the University of South Carolina. Both have spent their careers in Palmetto State public schools. And now both have been recognized as the state’s best in their profession.
Carter, who teaches English at Chapin High School in Lexington-Richland School District 5, has been selected as the 2022 South Carolina Teacher of the Year, and Melton, also with District 5, was named the 2022 state Superintendent of the Year.
A no-nonsense football coach and civics teacher whose brusque manner intimidated Carter seems an unlikely source for inspiration, but his kindness when she had a “terrible day” at school influenced her career decision.
“He saw me in the hallway upset, and he took three giant steps over to me and guided me into his classroom,” says Carter, who attended Shiloh High School in Gwinnett County, Georgia. “He said, ‘What's got you down?’ And he listened to me. It didn't matter that I was supposed to be in another class. It didn't matter that it was his planning block. He took a minute and made my world right again. At that moment, I thought, ‘I want to do that.’ He's a civics teacher, but he's also a champion for kids, and teenagers need as many of those people as they can get.”
For Melton, it was her third-grade teacher at Petersburg Elementary School in Pageland, South Carolina, who inspired her to become a teacher.
“Ms. Baker's gentle demeanor and forward-thinking instruction captured my dreams and began my journey,” Melton says. “Her classroom was magical. I did not know the path that was required to teach, including the requirement to go to college, but I knew then I wanted to be Ms. Baker."
The South Carolina Teacher of the Year is selected by the state Department of Education and serves for one school year as an ambassador for more than 55,000 educators. Carter also will receive $25,000 and a new BMW for one year. The Superintendent of the Year is selected by the South Carolina Association of School Administrators. Melton will be recognized throughout the year, and she will receive a scholarship to be used to assist a student or teacher with professional development or college courses.
Both top educators say their experiences and training at UofSC prepared them for their careers and helped them grow in their profession. With nearly 33,000 graduates, UofSC is the largest preparer of teachers in South Carolina, and four of the past six state Teachers of the Year have been College of Education alumni.
“We are so proud of our graduates and the amazing work they continue to do,” says UofSC College of Education Dean Jon Pedersen. “The hard work and commitment of these leaders and teachers to their passion and purpose is profound. As part of our Gamecock family, we look forward to the wonderful work they will do in the future.”
We caught up with Carter and Melton to talk about their awards, how UofSC influenced their careers and the impact they hope to have on students and their communities.
What does it mean to you to be selected as a top professional educator in South Carolina and how do you plan to use your statewide platform?
Carter: It is so humbling because nobody does this alone. I'm well aware that I am only as good as those people who have helped me along, and I truly feel like I am sitting on the shoulders of all the really great people I work with and colleagues I teach with. I will use this platform to highlight that we are truly better together when we can talk to other teachers about the language and the power of the classroom. We often have the inclination to bring outside experts to our schools and teach us how to do it better, but a lot of times we forget that the experts are among us. I think giving teachers the opportunity to have conversations among themselves is very powerful.
Melton: I am humbled every day by the responsibility of leading my school district. This has been a challenging year for all superintendents, but I do believe we have all done our best to put our students, staff and families first in the decisions we have made. My continued mission will be to make a positive impact in the lives of children and teachers in our community. I will use my platform to celebrate public education and advocate for children, teachers, staff and leaders across South Carolina. We have recorded an unprecedented chapter of educational history. We created new structures, curricular opportunities, experiences, teaching and learning; all while supporting academic, physical and social-emotional development of students. Our efforts have not been perfect, but they have been intentional.
How do you hope to benefit or impact your students and your community?
Carter: In a world where we have a lot of things that we disagree on, I think that coming to the table together to find a sense of community and just sitting down and starting a conversation about hard things is a very valuable and much needed practice. I heard a speaker say one time that hate does not abide proximity. It's very hard to shout negative things to someone’s face. I hope that being that person who's able to be involved in conversations about education is a huge part of moving forward and modeling to the community a more responsible way to interact.
I’m also involved in the Teacher Cadet program. It has been a tremendous source of fuel 22 years into my education career to be directly involved in the training and inspiration of the next generation of teachers. Even if they don't all decide to major in education, I can still impact future community members to appreciate education from that inside perspective.
Melton: Educational researcher John Hattie's "Know Thy Impact" has been my mantra as superintendent. Every interaction and every decision have the potential to make a positive, neutral or negative impact. Being in classrooms with students, teachers and staff is important to me to stay connected with needs across our system and successes of individuals or groups. It is also important to me to be visible and engaged in our community, building relationships and strengthening partnerships.
With the support of our Board of Trustees, we have implemented new social and emotional efforts to support our students, families and staff. We have increased our advanced coursework participation and dual enrollment opportunities for our students. We have also implemented the first of its kind (in the nation) Professional Development School-District in partnership with the University of South Carolina. In addition, many steps have been taken, at my directive, to improve the outcomes of students with disabilities from preschool to graduation.
Can you speak to your experience at UofSC and how it influenced your career?
Carter: In 2012 when I graduated from the university with an educational technology master's degree, my program was completely online. That was a new thing then. Both the content and the modeling from my USC professors directly impacted the way I've taught students over this past year. One of the best things I learned is that it's not about the technology; it's about using that technology to serve good instruction. Even when you are an online instructor, it begins with relationships. That might be a little tricky online, but it can begin with something as simple as knowing the names of your students. Saying hello to people by name, even on a computer screen, is the same thing we do when we stand at our door and welcome kids in the classroom.
Melton: The coursework I completed at the University of South Carolina as an undergraduate and graduate student helped me develop my understanding of pedagogy, broaden my experiences and discover my voice for the field of education. (Melton completed a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and a master’s degree in early childhood education at UofSC.) Professors knew my name, supported my aspirations as a first-generation college graduate and developed friendships and bonds that are fond treasures. “Forever to Thee” may be a mantra, but I have discovered as a student, alum and a mother of two USC students, “Forever to Thee” is also a bond of family and community and commitment.