–by Shawn Cetrone for The Herald–
Patti Tate, a Northwestern High School English instructor whose engaging style and passion for literature has won over scores of students, is South Carolina’s 46th Teacher of the Year.
S.C. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, standing beside Gov. Nikki Haley, announced the award Wednesday evening at a banquet at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. “Patti is a master teacher dedicated to creating an environment of high expectations for student achievement,” Zais said. “Her teaching philosophy centers on guiding her students to become independent, lifelong learners. She instills in her students a passion for learning and a passion for putting forth their best efforts. I believe she’ll make an excellent ambassador for our state and a great representative to the national program.”
Tate accepted the award teary-eyed. “Teaching is a calling,” she told the audience of several hundred. “God gives you this gift … you have to thank your family because it is a 24-hour job … I love going to school everyday. It’s not a job. It’s something I love.”
Tate, 47 and in her 25th year of teaching, has worked in classrooms around the state, including at Clover High. At Northwestern, she teaches advanced placement English. Her approach to education, she says, is simple: “I don’t teach classes, I teach students. All students learn, but they all learn in their unique way. It’s about the relationship you have with kids.”
As daunting as getting to know dozens of teenagers in rotating groups every year might seem, Tate has embraced it. She asks students about themselves – how they’re doing, how their band competition or soccer match went, where they got that cool sweatshirt. She tries to attend their events.
In classroom discussions she sprinkles probing questions about how students would approach particular situations. One of the first assignments students receive is to write an essay about what kind of shoe they would be and why. “If they see that I have an interest in them … they’re willing to meet me,” she says.
The classroom atmosphere at times is like a book club in which a group of friends have gathered to chat about literature. Tate and the teens trade analysis and insights, sharing their reactions to the assigned readings. A discussion that starts with societal prejudice during Mark Twain’s day can elicit astute observations, such as one that senior Meredith Dallas offered Tuesday on America’s current political climate: “It’s gotten so mean and so harsh, that God forbid you label yourself one way or another, you get attacked.”
Since Tate began teaching AP English, enrollment has grown, said Ozzie Ahl, a former Northwestern assistant principal who’s now principal at Rock Hill High. “Kids enroll because they want to be in her class,” he said.
“I really didn’t like English until I started her class,” senior Nicole Alexander said.
Tate steers lessons with her love for the written word. “Do you love this book like I do?” she asked a class of seniors reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “Guys, this is my favorite writer of all time. Like I told you, I have his statue at my house.”
Her passion has proved infectious. “I want to feel the same way about stuff that she does … to relate to it on her level,” senior Maria Zazzara said. “She inspires me to work my hardest and achieve any goal I want.”
Along with the Teacher of the Year title, Tate will get $25,000 and a yearlong lease of a BMW X3. She’ll spend next school year in residency at Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, housed at Winthrop University. She will travel the state, meet with political leaders and attend functions.
On Tuesday, the day before Tate learned that she won, students wished her good luck. “It’s a win-win,” Tate told them. “No matter what happens.” When the class of juniors learned that the winner leaves school for a year, a student spoke up: “How do we win? We don’t. You leave us.”