The classroom has always served as a second home for Susan Howard, and that’s the kind of experience she tries to replicate for her students.
In only her second year as a teacher in Hall County, she has been named the 2022-23 Teacher of the Year for Hall County Schools.
A self-professed Army brat with a military father, Howard moved around a lot as a child, staying in Georgia for the most part but also living in Pennsylvania and Hawaii.
“It was tough, and I think that's one reason why it's so important to me as a teacher to make sure my classroom is a positive and happy place,” she said. “It was very important to me that every time we moved, the teacher was happy I was there and made me feel welcome. That was important, and that has made me very aware of how I react and respond to children as a teacher.”
She credits a moment of divine intervention for her role as the sole teacher for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math at Lanier Elementary School.
She said she loved her previous teaching job in Oconee County, but along with her husband and daughter, she decided to plant roots further north after finding a welcoming church in Dahlonega.
Her friends asked her, “Do you really want to move up to North Georgia?”
Guided by faith, she decided to make the move, but she needed to find another teaching job.
She attended the Hall County job fair, submitting her resume to various schools and feeling rather disheartened by the end.
“I was so tired,” she said. “And then the last stop was Lanier, and it was a rainy day, my hair was frizzy. And I was like, ‘I’m so tired, Lord, do I need to stop here?’ And I could hear him say, ‘Stop here.’ And so I did.”
She secured an interview, and the rest is history, as they say.
She thought she was interviewing for a homeroom teacher position, but they told her, “‘Susan, we were actually bringing you in here because we have looked at your resume and we really feel like you would be the perfect person to start our STEM program here.’”
“My mouth dropped,” she said. “It was a dream come true.”
She has long been passionate about project-based learning and has built the school’s STEM program from the ground up.
“That's something that I'm really passionate about doing in the STEM lab, just introducing the kids to different types of STEM-related careers so they can start thinking about their future, because some of them already are.”
Last year, students from Chestatee High School gave a career presentation to her elementary students.
She recalled: “The high schoolers asked, ‘What do you all want to be when you grow up, and this first grader raised her hand and said, ‘I want to be a biomedical engineer.’ It was just awesome to hear that from her.”
Howard earned her bachelor’s in education from Georgia College in Milledgeville. But before transferring there, as a sophomore at the University of North Georgia, she discovered her love for teaching during a two-week summer camp at a university in Beijing, China, where she taught “conversational English through dance.”
“We did a lot of Michael Jackson and Celine Dion and some Backstreet Boys,” she said. “I didn’t want to come back, it was so wonderful.”
That experience continues to influence her teaching, especially in a school district where many of the students are English Language Learners.
“When they come in here, they may not understand everything I am saying, but when I give them the materials and they have a visual on the board … they are comprehending what the problem is,” she said.
“You are able to see what's going on in their mind through their hands,” she said. “It goes back a little bit to what I was talking about with the English summer camp, that they were able to learn through movement, and it's almost the same thing in here with STEM. They're not dancing, but they are showing what they know and what they're capable of with their hands.”
Students immerse themselves in design projects, whether it’s “engineering the next Mars rover or programming a robot to save Lego man from his latest mishap,” she said. “I feel like all generations of students have needed this, and it's about time. It's about time we have offered this kind of classroom to our children — and not just the advanced learner, not just the gifted child, but to all of them.”
Howard is set to receive $10,000 from the Melvin Douglas and Victoria Kay Ivester Foundation, a tradition started recently by Doug Ivester, local philanthropist and former chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Co.
Howard said she will donate 10% of her $10,000 award to her church, and use some to purchase more robots for her STEM lab.
In her free time, she likes to read, garden and go for runs in the morning on the school track.