Heather Auxier is one of the hardest working teachers in the business and she is bringing ancient history to life for Hardin Valley Middle School’s 6th graders. We talked school and life over breakfast sandwiches from Dunkin Donuts.
Adam: Say your name for me.
Heather: My name’s Heather Auxier. (Awk-seer)
Adam: That’s a married last name, right?
Adam: Do you know the story behind it?
Heather: It’s not fancy and it’s not French. His dad is from West Virginia, so they actually pronounce it Aug-sure, but when my mother in law and father in law got married, she was like, ‘no, that’s too complicated.’ We’re just going to phonetically say at Awk-seer. So that’s how it is, what it is.
Adam: I, for the most part, grew up in West Virginia and I was pronouncing it, Heather Aug-sure, so it must just be bred into me. *Laughter*
Heather: That’s how all of his dad’s side of the family would pronounce it, but it’s just Awk-seer. Most of the time I get people who want to get super fancy and go like, O-Sayer or Oxy-A, and I’m like, no, if anything we need to just hillbilly it up.
Adam: Don’t try to church it up. Haha! Cool.
Adam: Where were you born?
Heather: I was born in Kingsport, Tennessee, so the Tri-Cities.
Adam: How’d you end up in Knoxville?
Heather: In the middle of my high school career, my dad’s job revolved around abatement and everything that goes on in Oak Ridge so we moved down this way. I actually ended up graduating from West High.
Adam: Where did you go to middle school and what was your mascot?
Heather: I went to John Sevier Middle School in Kingsport, Tennessee and we were the Warriors. Everything was Native American related in Kingsport. Our rivals were the Redskins. Both of us combined at the high school to be the Indians. Everyone’s an Indian in Kingsport!
Adam: What college did you go to?
Heather: I went to two. I went to Pellissippi and got a full ride there and I was so excited. It was before the free two years there. I think that was a great decision for me at the time. I thought like, ‘Oh man, I’m not going to big university,’ but it was awesome. Then I transferred over to University of Tennessee.
Adam: What did you major in while you were there?
Heather: A few things actually. I think that everything happens for a reason and God has a plan and all of that. I started out a senior not really knowing what I wanted to do and one of my teachers, Josie White, who is at West High, told me I was born to be a teacher. So initially I started the steps to become a teacher and I ended up in a second grade placement. My major was Elementary Education. I was like, yeah, I don’t think I’m cut out for this. At the time I was working at Lowe’s and I really loved management there and I thought, okay, maybe I should just get a general business degree and see what I can do with that. The Lord had other plans for me because I was put into a tutoring situation where my teaching skills and my personality in that just blossomed. I went and met with my advisor and he said, “listen, have you thought about middle school or high school?” I would never teach high school. Those children are bigger than me and they scare me. He pushed me to check out middle school. I did a placement at a middle school and everything clicked together.
Adam: Which middle school was that?
Heather: That was at South Doyle Middle School.
Adam: When I saw you at the teacher lunch, I thought you looked like someone famous. I was trying to place it and then we figured out I knew you from working at Lowe’s, which is where I spend the other half of my life. I remember you being in that management role and you were always just super sharp. I spent so much time there that I picked up on it. That was more than a part time job for you. Why’d you choose that route?
Heather: I’m one of five kids. I am the first person in my immediate family to actually finish college with a degree. We were a one income family and my dad would have loved to have been able to pay for me to go to college, but that wasn’t gonna happen. Even with my first two years being paid for, I still had to work to just pay the bills. I lived on campus for one year and had to be able to afford to do that and I wouldn’t change it for the world. My Lowe’s family is still my family, just like my school family is my family and I love it. I love learning new things. I will be a lifelong learner forever. At Lowe’s, I bumped from one department to the next department. I ended up being level one certified in the whole store, which is a low level, but I could help probably 90 percent of the customers find what they needed as long as it wasn’t like electrical or plumbing. Because I’m not going to flood your house and I’m not going to burn it down to the ground either. I love that I was a front end manager, like a head cashier. It was just really fun to manage people and be in that teaching role. In all my past jobs, I always ended up in these positions where I ended up teaching people how to do something. It was a lot of fun though, a lot of hard work, especially in the summers. I went almost full time in the summers and worked about 32 hours while taking 18 plus hours sometimes. It was a lot.
Adam: I respect that because a lot of people feel like when they go to school they just have to do school. But, you’ve shown that you took that route of working while you’re there and making things affordable, making it doable because you didn’t have the means otherwise. So I respect that a lot.
Heather: Thank you so much.
Adam: What was your major in college?
Heather: My major switched, but the one that I ended up getting a degree for, I majored in history.
Adam: Did you do the five year program there?
Heather: I did at UT.
Adam: You have your master’s as well?
Heather: Yes, I do!
Adam: How many years have you taught?
Heather: I count my full year internship through UT, so this is my seventh year of teaching.
Adam: Where else have you been taught?
Heather: During my full year internship I spent the bulk of my time at Bearden Middle School. That was wonderful! I did the last six weeks at Powell Middle School. Then I spent the bulk of my teaching career at Karns Middle School, so that’s where I was the last five years. It’s been really funny just to see how the people I’ve met through all that have entered back into my life. Some of the people I met at Powell ended up at Karns and some of the people I’ve met at Bearden have ended up here. It’s just really cool how things can change in seven years.
Adam: What subjects are you teaching?
Heather: I teach sixth grade Social Studies. So it’s Western Civilization Part One. It’s the beginning of time to the fall of the Roman Empire. And I teach that to 11 year olds.
Adam: Oh Wow. How many sections?
Heather: We have four sections.
Adam: How many periods are in the day here?
Heather: They’re six. So the kids get four core classes and two related art classes.
Adam: What clubs do you sponsor? What sports do you coach?
Heather: I’m the cheer coach here. That takes up the bulk of my time. I don’t officially sponsor any other clubs, but if a kid ever came by and asked for a sponsor, I’m the person who doesn’t know how to say no. In the past, I have worn many hats, of different clubs, sponsors, and it seemed like every year I either add one or one goes away. It’s been kind of nice this year to not have as many things on my plate, but give it time, and I’m sure the children will figure out that I say yes. *laughter*
Adam: What keeps you teaching?
Heather: There is one thing that keeps me motivated. Josie White saw that I’ve been a teacher my whole life, being a sibling of five. My youngest sister has autism and one of my main goals in life is inclusion. Inclusion of everybody. I’m a big supporter of inclusion for people with disabilities, but also for inclusion of any ability level, skin color, choice of religion, all of those things. I think that what keeps me here is being able to share that idea of inclusion with my kids. I’m sure you miss the classroom some days, and the teacher wow moments. For example when one of the kids that’s struggling, figures it out. When that kid comes to you because you were that safe person that built that relationship. I guess ultimately relationship is why I’m here as well. I like just being another person in these kids’ life. Whether they get my content at the end of the year is not the main reason why I’m here. They’re going to get it or they’re not going to get it. Just helping them transition to middle school and have a successful year and figuring out who they are and support them. That’s why I do what I do.
Adam: Yeah, absolutely. I wanted all of my students to learn how to attack and conquer life…I had an opportunity to work with a couple of kids for a year and a half through three different classes. Those two kids at the very end of school went, “I get it now”. Such a great feeling!
Heather: Yes, yes. And then you ugly cry on the way home and know it was totally worth it. Worth dealing with the fits and all the “we have to do this homework” questions. Yes. It’s totally worth it.
Adam: What would you do if you weren’t teaching?
Heather: Well, I love being creative. I think that if I wasn’t here I would be doing something creative or maybe crafting. I kind of do that on the side a little bit. It’s like my outlet, but I’ve actually been interested in student ministry. Creating curriculum for a church would be an idea. Something similar to what I do here as a teacher, but just a different job, like a different atmosphere or place of work. Those are definitely things that I’ve looked into, but I love checking things off a checklist. I could see me being an administrative assistant somewhere and kicking butt, or an event planner. A job where I could have a huge to-do list and get it all done; I’d feel like the most successful person in the world.
Adam: Who was your favorite teacher when you were a student and why?
Heather: My fourth grade teacher. Mr. Estess. One of the reasons is he had every single one of my siblings. He instilled in me a love for the University of Tennessee and I definitely had him in 1998. It was fourth grade and it’s been so long, but I just remember there were so many learning experiences that happened that year. We had a greenhouse and I learned how to play chess, which I still suck at, and my mom came once a week and read to our class. There were just so many opportunities to instill a love of learning and that was the earliest memory that I have of having that love and that drive to learn. I’m so grateful that he instilled that in all of us.
Adam: That’s cool. Fourth grade. Got it early.
Adam: Which educator have you learned the most from?
Heather: That’s hard because I think as teachers we steal from each other all the time and I say steal in a loving way. But the person who has loved on me, has pushed me, has challenged me, has supported me, is Angela Buckner. She was over at Karns and now she’s over at Beaumont Magnet. Just the way that she works with kids and pushes kids and supports parents is amazing. I can’t even put into words just how phenomenal a teacher she has been for 20+ years. She can walk into any classroom and command it, command a classroom AND love on those kids. I told her “I want to be you when I grow up.”
Adam: What professional awards have you earned?
Heather: I’ve earned two. I won the PTSA Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award in 2016. Then in 2017 I won teacher of the year at Karns Middle School.
Adam: Right on!
Adam: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Heather: I am proud that I got teacher of the year. That’s really cool. But I think more than anything, walking the stage with my master’s degree. For people who don’t know, at UT you do a full year unpaid internship while you’re taking graduate school coursework. There was a point in that year where I thought I wasn’t gonna make it. That’s why I’m thankful for the cohort style of where we’re all suffering through this together and the suffering is totally worth it. Sometimes I shake it off and I’m like, a master’s degree is not that big of a deal, but it really is. That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of that I’ve achieved. Also thankful for the number of people that helped me get through all of that, you know, it was a definitely a group effort.
Adam: I’ve had two panic attacks in my life and one of them came in October of the year I was getting my master’s at UT. I’d be thinking,”I just wasted a whole day and I have so much to do, I was supposed to write a paper and all I got is half a page and even that’s all garbage.” Things would just pile up.
Heather: I remember having to delete four or five pages for my action research after putting in countless hours. You shed a tear; it’s for the best because you want a good grade on it but you worked so hard. That was awful.
Adam: What do you consider a successful student to be?
Heather: I have always believed in what growth mindset states, but it’s become more of a buzzword. I feel like a student who is most successful has a growth mindset, which means they come in and they’ve realized that they don’t have all the answers and that it’s okay not to know. And that the journey of this year is figuring that out. I guess an average teacher answer would be a kid who is organized and does their homework and follows the rules and those things. Ultimately at the end of the day, if you’re willing to realize that you’re a work in progress and your goal every single day is just to get better. Oh my gosh, I want to find that child and clone them because that’s what’s really going to help them be successful in the future.
Adam: Yeah, that’s the greatest limiting factor for a child. They have to be about getting better than where they are at.
Heather: It’s getting better because with this [growth mindset] being more of a buzzword, I’m getting kids that have had teachers in the past that are instilling this. I have such good things to say about the future of education. I really do feel like the pendulum is swinging. I don’t know which direction the pendulum is swinging, but it is moving. I think that we’re just going to have more kids that are open to the learning experience and having that productive struggle and not being like, I’m never gonna be able to do this and I quit because that’s just too hard. Because it’s hard as a teacher, to wheel your way back into getting them to believe that they can.
Adam: I coached rugby at Central and one thing I’d say to them is we’re going to win..maybe two games this entire season. Then before we played a game, ‘know we’re not going to win today but individually you know what you have been working on, your tackling, you need to get three solid tackles today. This is how you win today by improving. If we do that as a team, next year we’re going to win more games, but you are here today to learn how to play the game.
Heather: Winning will come later after you’ve put in the work. I can include myself in this, like I’m a victim of the instant society. What do we really have to wait for? I’ve got Amazon two day shipping and it’s glorious. The days of me sitting at my desk here until 7:00 at night, I just don’t have time to go to Walmart, but I can order it on Amazon and it’s at my doorstep before I could have even shopped for it. So I think the kids want the instant success in everything. Instant wins.
Adam: What time do you arrive at school and what time do you normally leave?
Heather: I used to be super consistent about the time I got to school. This year, it’s like hit or miss because I’m still trying to figure out Hardin Valley traffic. On a day where I don’t have to make my copies, I get here around 6:30. If I have my copies made then I get here around 7:00 or 7:15am.
Adam: What time do you leave at night?
Heather: That depends too because I’m the cheer coach. If there’s a home basketball game, I don’t leave until 8:00. Um, but on an average day between 5:30 and 6:00pm.
Adam: I think it’s important for people to hear the hours you put in.
Heather: Yeah. I’m sure you’ve heard this too..people saying you get summers off and you go to work at 8:00am and you’re done at 3:30. You just can’t get done what you need to get done. The hours of 8:00am and 3:30pm, you’re teaching kids and you’re making decisions and it’s not just teaching kids, you know, Bobby has to go into foster care or Susie was absent yesterday and you have to reteach her what she missed. There’s always something going on. Children never ever get in trouble, so there’s never ever a meeting about that or a parent conference. *laughter*.
Adam: The work goes home with you too. You also take the kids home because you’re always trying to solve the ‘today just didn’t go well with Timmy, I’m not going to lose this kid, how can I reach him?’
Heather: I don’t know how a teacher can’t take their kids home. I don’t know a single person that I’ve ever worked with who hasn’t cared about a kid. There are serious instances and then there are not so serious instances. Example: little johnny doesn’t know his multiplication facts and he’s beating himself up over it every single day. That’s just as important to somebody in the middle school mindset as kids who don’t have food to eat or stuff’s going on at home.
Adam: What improvement would you most like to see made to public education?
Heather: Legislation that makes sense from all perspectives. I don’t want to get into specific people, but I think that sometimes decisions are made hastily. They might have the best intentions but they don’t realize what that looks like trickled down to the district level and then the school level and then you make three or four of those and then the time allotment. I’m just speaking from my last five years in the classroom. There have been some decisions that I think were made with great intention, but they didn’t think about how far that could go to affect the kids that are in my classroom.
Adam: How can we better inform our legislators to make better legislation?
Heather: We have some great school board representatives. Terry Hill is wonderful and she is always willing to hear from parents and teachers. I think that having open lines of communication is the first step and we have that, but now we need to hear from all the people. Most think because ‘oh, it’s education, it’s just never going to change’ and they have no voice. I think like when you realize there are more educators than there are legislators, then they can hear our voice. That’s the thing that we can, voice what’s wrong in an appropriate way.
Adam: What is something that you could use in your classroom that you don’t currently have?
Heather: I would love to start building a class set of chromebooks. I was One To One in my classroom last year. I was piloting personalized learning and while I don’t want my students to have a computer all day every day, just having those available at all would be amazing. It is just something that really shifts the engagement and what we can do, especially with ancient history. It’s the most engaging thing these kids ever will learn in their whole life and they use it every single day. That’s just something that I think would really help me in my classroom.
Adam: Yeah. Certainly with your subject, they can really run with that tool.
Heather: And the creative aspect of what they can create. I miss that a little bit from last year. We do have chromebook carts that we can check out but with as many teachers as we have and fewer chromebooks…sometimes you just want to be a chromebook hog and have them for three weeks straight. We want to make sure that all the kids get an opportunity to do that.
Adam: What hobbies do you have?
Heather: I’m a crafter. I cut vinyl decals and I make shirts and things. Mostly I craft as gifts for people. That’s one of my favorite things to do, but I’m a good old teacher too, and reading is probably my favorite hobby. On breaks, I challenge myself to see how many books I can read and I’ve got a nice stack just sitting there next to my bed ready to be read over Christmas break.
Adam: What is a good way for a student or parent to spoil you?
Heather: I love Starbucks and Target. Gift cards to there are the best because then I can go and pick something out for myself and every time I wear it, I can just go, ‘oh my gosh, I remember that time Sarah got me that gift card and this is what I got’. Or coming in with my Starbucks and being like, ‘Thank you so much Ava!’
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