Hannah Gadd Ardrey

Every year, Mississippi honors an exceptional public school teacher for their service in the classroom with the title of Teacher of the Year. Last spring, Lafayette High School choir director and music appreciation teacher Hannah Gadd Ardrey received the award and spent the year speaking at conferences, giving Ted Talks, and even had her students sing for the governor.

The Mississippi Teacher of the Year program honors educators nominated by their school districts who are ultimately chosen through an interview with the Mississippi Department of Education. The 2020 Teacher of the Year will be named on March 27, and finalists include educators from Oxford, Forest, Petal and Clinton.

Mississippi Today sat down with Gadd Ardrey to reflect on her year and how her own childhood and grade school experiences shaped her teaching philosophies.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: You are clearly very passionate about teaching the fine arts. Why?
A: I am so passionate about it because music changed my life. I’m a proud product of the Mississippi public education system from kindergarten until my master’s degree. I am a strong advocate for high quality education being accessible for all students because I believe that every single student deserves to have a highly qualified educator in their classroom.

With the teacher shortage being something that is a national crisis, I feel like it’s important to find something that you are passionate about and realize that the biggest thing you can do is impact someone else and show them what they can do with their life. Fine arts and teaching especially can do that.

You can oftentimes help a student voice what’s going on inside of themselves through art, through music. I ask my students (on) the first day of school what their favorite song is, because that tells me everything I need to know about them in that very moment. It tells me if they’re in a good mood, or they’re in a sad mood. It tells me if they’re struggling with something, that we may need to have a private conversation…on a deeper level. I think it’s important not only to see the fine arts as a whole represented, almost like a spotlight, but to see that the fine arts are treasured and to show other educators how the fine arts can be used and incorporated into their daily curriculum.

Q: You are planning a tour of schools across the state. Why?
A: Being Teacher of the Year does not mean that I am the best teacher, by far. To me it just means that I got really lucky because I have amazing students that make me look really good. I want to see and promote other educators that are doing amazing jobs in their districts. They’re changing students’ lives, they’re changing the world and their local community. It’s not really about what you see on a spreadsheet or through numbers or data, it’s about what those people are doing to positively affect their community. Not a lot of people get to see what is going on in school districts that may not have the funding, that may not have the awards, and I want to see what these teachers are doing that possibly impacts their students.

Q: How did the arts impact you?
A: There are so many things in education that sure, (teachers) have to meet certain benchmarks, but what are you really doing to help those students succeed in the long run? That’s why I’m so passionate about music. It changed my life. I was bullied as a child. My father was incarcerated from third grade until ninth grade. (I was) having to deal with not becoming a statistic of a child of an incarcerated parent while being raised by my mother, who raised me and my brother, and she was a music teacher. That was the only time I really felt like I could make a difference. I felt like I could change the world.

And there’s so much that we see today with students. They are dealing with so much and they’re constantly looking for an outlet and they’re constantly looking for a way to voice their opinions and what’s happening on the inside. Music was that for me. Music let me have an outlet. Music let me be good at something, finally. And I’m not even the best at anything really, but music made me feel like I belonged and it made me feel like I was part of a team and it made me feel like a starter.

It’s about motivating, understanding, sculpting independent citizens so that when they go out into the world they make the world a better place. That’s why I’m just so passionate about it and so excited for education because I feel like the biggest recruitment base is in our classroom right now. Why would you not be excited to come to work and to see your students? They are the most powerful people on the face of the planet, we just haven’t given them a chance in the real world yet… I feel like students can change the world. We just have to look at every student like they can, and convince them that they can. Statistics were telling me that I couldn’t. My friends were telling me that I couldn’t do anything. But it took a teacher, (and) a supportive community, to show me what I could do.

Q: You earned this title last year, an election year in which politicians took time to talk about how much they value teachers and want to give pay raises. Does the dollar amount really matter to you?
A: Since everyone has different views about this, I’m just going to speak for me personally. Educators, no matter what the dollar sign amount is, no matter what the policy is, our students are what matters the most to us. At the heart of everything, no matter what numbers are being thrown out for pay or salary, we want the very best for your students. It’s not necessarily about dollar signs as it is about resources and respect. Having an educated community and having an educated workforce speaks volumes about a state and about how you can recruit businesses for a state.

I feel like making sure that all students have an equitable education and are afforded multiple opportunities from multiple angles is what matters most to me. And providing teachers with the resources, whether you define that as money or you define that as more time or you define that as more support through funding for classrooms — that can be determined in multiple different ways by multiple different people. (For) me personally in my classroom, as long as teachers are getting the resources that they need to help students succeed, that is what it all boils down to.

Q: What advice do you have for fellow educators? 
H: Teachers, support your students in everything they do because you never know if the person you’re teaching will be the next Mississippi Teacher of the Year. You never know if they’ll be the next governor. You don’t know if they’re going to be your physician. Take ownership of having the best profession in the world.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.