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Advocating for her peers, Mitchell's Amanda Hargreaves is appreciative of her 2021 South Dakota Teacher of the Year experience

Mitchell Middle School teacher hopes to continue advocacy for students, teachers

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Amanda Hargreaves, a sixth-grade teacher at Mitchell Middle School, reflected recently on her experience as South Dakota Teacher of the Year. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
Matt Gade

It’s been quite a year for Amanda Hargreaves.

After being named the Mitchell School District Teacher of the Year in February of 2020, the Mitchell Middle School teacher was also selected as the Region 3 Teacher of the Year that May. Then, in October of last year, Hargreaves was named the 2021 South Dakota Teacher of the Year.

Since then it has been a whirlwind year for Hargreaves, a sixth-grade science and language arts teacher, that saw her travel the state and the country while learning about and advocating for the educational experience of students and teachers around the United States.

She just returned from the event known as Washington Week, one of the signature events of the program that sees teachers of the year from states around the country converge for a week of study, networking and advocacy.

Like the rest of the past year, it was an enlightening experience, she said, even though she couldn’t help but think that there were other teachers at least as deserving of the honor.

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“(Being a part of this), you have these experiences that feel bigger than yourself. Why me? There are teachers in my building that are better teachers than I am, and hundreds in our state. So why me?” Hargreaves asked. “One of the speakers at one of our breakfasts in Washington had been having those same experiences, and she said that, perhaps, this was the moment for which we were created. And I welled up with tears.”

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Mitchell Middle School teacher Amanda Hargreaves, South Dakota Teacher of the Year for 2021, visited the White House with other teachers recently at the invitation of Jill Biden, first lady of the United States and a lifelong educator. (Submitted Photo)

Hargreaves, 34, has been dedicating herself to education her entire career. And while much of that time has been spent focusing on teaching her students, her time serving as the South Dakota Teacher of the Year and its accompanying responsibilities opened her up further to the need to support the teachers who guide those students through their formative years.

“The students are the focus, but we have to remember the teachers, too. (The last two school years) have been so hard for the kids, but sometimes we forget the teachers are human too. We have to humanize the profession, we don’t want to be heroes, we just want them to remember we’re human,” Hargreaves said.

The last two years have shown how difficult teaching in times of crisis can be. The COVID-19 pandemic upended practically every aspect of life when it arrived in 2019, sending teachers and students away from the classroom and into virtual learning spaces . Mask requirements have strained relationships amongst parents, administrators, teachers and students.

Conditions have eased since this time last year. While the mask mandate at the Mitchell School District remains in place and controversial , infection numbers in the district remain relatively low at five active cases currently and 32 cases overall during the 2020-21 school year. For the most part, students are back in the classroom where education professionals say they learn the best and teachers do their best work.

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Amanda Hargreaves, right, a sixth-grade teacher at Mitchell Middle School, recently visited Washington, D.C. as the South Dakota Teacher of the Year for 2021. Along with Amanda Harris, the South Dakota Teacher of the Year for 2020, visited national leaders such as Rep. Dusty Johnson. (Submitted Photo)

Being named the South Dakota Teacher of the Year qualified Hargreaves for candidacy for the National Teacher of the Year Award , which is distributed by the Council of Chief State School Officers. While she was not named the recipient of that award in the end, she did get to take part in various events and activities that brought her together with fellow state teachers of the year and education officials at the state and national level for discourse.

She is currently in the process of meeting with representatives of schools of education at South Dakota’s public universities, and the Washington Week trip, which was held Oct. 17 through Oct. 23, gave her a chance to rub elbows with leaders such as Jill Biden , First Lady of the United States and a career educator.

“We got to do our day at the White House. We were invited by Dr. Jill Biden,” Hargreaves said. “An educator in the White House, how wonderful is that for public education?”

She also had meetings with U.S. Sen. John Thune and U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson. With both being from Mitchell, she and Johnson joked that they could have had their in-person meeting back in Mitchell, but the overall experience of talking education with policy-makers made her want to continue to be part of that process.

That can only help bring the needs of public educators around the country to light to the people who make decisions that impact how they work.

“Our big key word was ‘humanizing,’” Hargreaves said. “Lifting up teachers and making sure they have the resources they need to help kids in their communities. We’re advocating for teachers to have a seat at the table when policies are discussed.”

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Amanda Hargreaves, right, a sixth-grade teacher at Mitchell Middle School, recently visited Washington, D.C. as the South Dakota Teacher of the Year for 2021. Along with Amanda Harris, the South Dakota Teacher of the Year for 2020, visited national leaders such as Sen. John Thune. (Submitted Photo)

There are many more challenges out there, she said. Schools around the country are experiencing teacher shortages, an issue Hargreaves said has also been an issue at the Mitchell School District, with fewer substitutes on hand than would be ideal. She said while rewarding, the teaching profession puts a lot of demands and stress on its practitioners, which can cause newer teachers to abandon the job, sometimes within a matter of years.

“We have a teacher shortage right now, and we’re looking to elevate and support new teachers. A study shows an incredibly large number of teachers leave within the first five years,” Hargreaves said.

When it comes to the classroom, Hargreaves absorbed ideas and techniques from fellow teachers around the country. Most of her students are back in a live classroom setting, but for those who are not, she tries to employ methods she discovered to help maintain the hands-on aspect of her teaching style, most notably for her science lessons.

It was a great opportunity to hear how other teachers were thinking outside the box, she said.

“It comes down to we want to do what’s best for kids. We can learn so much from different states and different districts and seeing what’s happening in other places, getting perspective from around the country, which I had never done before,” Hargreaves said. “Every state has its own story and unique challenges, but at the end of the day we want what’s best for the kids.”

She also noted the importance of social and emotional support for students. The last two years have been as stressful for students as it has been for teachers, and that’s something of which teachers need to be acutely aware. That issue can be addressed in part by team building, social and establishing a welcoming place for learning.

Hargreaves still has a handful of events to attend before her full experience as South Dakota Teacher of the Year is over. Among those, in January, she will travel to the College Football Playoff national championship game in Indianapolis, where she and fellow teachers will be recognized for their work. It should be a fun experience, and one she can share with her husband, Ben, who she said has been instrumental in allowing her to be the best teacher she can be.

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Amanda Hargreaves, second from right, helps Andrew Rank, Malachi Branch and Lewis LeFlore with their understanding of friction after building a bowling carnival game as part of their sixth-grade science class at Mitchell Middle School in this Mitchell Republic file photo. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
Matt Gade

She said she plans to take the lessons of the past year and continue to apply them to her career. As a teacher, Hargreaves is a natural listener, but she has also learned the importance of speaking her mind when she has an opinion on the subject of debate. She has come to learn that her place in the educational landscape should include active advocacy, something that comes with being outspoken when needed.

“One of the biggest things outside teaching practices and growing as a teacher is that I have a voice at the table for a reason, and I need to use that voice," she said. "I used to be a person who would sit in a room quietly and listen, but now I’ve found this kind of fire where I need to speak up. I hear conversations and share my opinion. I didn’t always know that about myself, and I think this experience helped me grow for what our teachers and students need.”

It’s something she hopes her fellow teachers of the year, and teachers across the country, will continue to do.

“I hope we can continue to work together and continue to be that voice,” Hargreaves said.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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