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KCSD’s Walker named STAR teacher

Posted: April 2, 2013 4:47 p.m.
Updated: April 3, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Kershaw County School District’s 2011-2012 District Teacher of the Year (DTOY) and 2012-2013 S.C. Honor Roll Teacher (HRT) Helen Walker was selected as one of ten South Carolina educators to participate in Strategies for Teacher Advancement and Renewal (STAR) in March.

Walker is a music teacher at Doby’s Mill Elementary School (DMES) and Baron-DeKalb Elementary School.

STAR is a bi-annual "reward and recognition program for outstanding South Carolina veteran teachers" sponsored by the Foundation for Professional Development and Palmetto State Teachers Association (PTSA). The program was created in 1994 by the PTSA. STAR is a donation based retreat funded by "corporate contributions." Participants are taken to Seabrook Island for a week of boundary-pushing experiences to help already accomplished teachers determine and create new goals professionally and personally, Walker said.

Before becoming the KCSD’s DTOY, Walker said she was not aware of the importance of belonging to a professional educator’s organization. She has been a long time member of the National Association for Music Educators, but just recently ventured into PTSA, an organization dedicated to teachers of all kinds. The STAR application was included in one of the packets she received from a PTSA workshop last year. Walker said she intended to give the application to another teacher, as she had already been honored with DTOY, but was encouraged by DMES Principal Ginger Catoe to fill out the application herself. Walker said she turned in her application last fall, but got a call in October from the Foundation saying they did not have enough funding to have a fall workshop, but they would re-consider her application in the spring.

"I thought no more of it, after that," Walker said. "A few weeks before I left, Ms. Catoe came to my class and said ‘Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to the STAR retreat.’"

Walker said she was anxious in the days leading up to the retreat because she’d be leaving her students once again. This year, Walker has had to manage her classroom time with travel, as she is still fulfilling her DTOY, and HRTOY duties. She also thought it was odd that the organization sent an unclear clear itinerary of what the week would hold; they did however send her a book called "Transitions," and told her to bring clothes that she could throw away. "Transitions" by William Bridges, shows you how to deal with challenging times in your life, Walker said. The book was fitting, Walker said, because she’s had a "challenging" year.

"It takes away from the kids," she said. "It’s been hard to find a balance this year. I was happy because I didn’t expect [the retreat], but that would mean I would be out of the classroom for another week."

Walker joined nine other educators from around the state and STAR Director’s Dr. Elizabeth Gressette and Dr. Jan Nashatker for five days at St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center. All of the teachers had a number of accolades and had been teaching from five to more than 18 years, Walker said. The group did reflective writing, talked about how to make transitions in the classroom and in their professional and personal life; assessed the various factors the can affect them in the classroom and how to deal with challenges and endings.

"You have to deal with your endings," Walker said. "You have to shut the door behind you to start over. They emphasized that these natural phases of life can affect what you do professionally and that the evolution of the human spirit happens through the challenges you face on a daily basis," she said.

She and her cohort internalized that information with a journey through the "nastiest, smelliest most foul thing in life" called the pluff mud of the salt marshes on the island; time holding and getting acquainted with baby alligators and eating sea pickles, which are "revolting," Walker said. The group also took a tour of Four Corners of Law in downtown Charleston and saw the 300-400 year-old Angel Oak tree, to learn the history, geography of the area, to complement their science and language arts lessons.

Walker moved from England to South Carolina in 2000 and has worked for KCSD for 13 years. Walker said she learns more about the connection between South Carolina and England each year. The retreat was about getting the teachers out of the classroom to experience something we wouldn’t get to see normally, she said.

"You are normally so focused on giving to the little people every day that you forget about yourself," she said. "Life has a way of clouding your vision; you can lose sight of what’s important. At one point or another you start to wonder if you are making a difference. With legislators and media biased, you start feeling knocked back by outside influences. You have to shed the layers of negative influences, fear and insecurity to have impact. They say life’s too short, and it really is."

STAR is the most profound professional development program that Walker has experienced, she said.

Walker will get to give another KCSD teacher a chance to participate with an application just like the one she received. The week allowed Walker to redirect her focus for the rest of the semester and the upcoming school year, she said.

"Where does my music program go from here?" is the question Walker has to ask after earning various honors over the last few years. Her personal and professional goal is to complete a Doctoral of Musical Arts program, she said. Walker started in KCSD as a fourth grade teacher through an international exchange program, although she graduated from Wolver Hampton, in England, with an honors Bachelor of Education in music education and studied music theory and flute and piano performance at Royal School of Music and London College of Music. When she was placed as a music teacher at DMES 10 years ago, all they had was a donated piano, risers and a textbook, she said. Now they have instruments from all over the world, a Midi stations, iPads, Orff instruments, a listening library, and a general library all in the classroom.

Her classroom goals include using the iPads she got through a grant in 2011 and eventually taking her kids to sing at Disney World. Her chorus is singing at Carowinds on April 6.

"Disney is an experience that the kids would never forget," she said. "I’m looking at a whole new year in the classroom. I’m refreshed, I’m rejuvenated and now I can come home and see where this journey will take my students," she said.

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