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Education: County's top teacher has a passion for history

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Ashton Lee thought it might work against her that she and Downing Hudson started phones ringing at the school district office last year when they announced a cellphone ban and a dress code to their social studies classes at Waccamaw Middle School.

No. All was forgiven. Lee was named Georgetown County’s Teacher of the Year this week.

“She’s just amazing,” said Jamie Curry, principal at Waccamaw Middle and a former top teacher. “She’s always looking for new and innovative ways to engage students.”

And, yes, Curry said, Lee is a risk-taker. That’s why she agreed to help when the seventh-grade social studies classes got to their unit on imperialism. To demonstrate the concept, Lee and Hudson had the principal announce a new policy on cellphones and dress. Word quickly spread beyond the classroom and the school before the policy was revealed to be just a part of the lesson.

“We said we had to do something drastic,” Lee recalled. She also does classroom simulations to teach about trench warfare in World War I, sweat shops in the industrial era and the fall of the Berlin Wall. When her class studied communism, the students all got C’s. “It’s all about making history come alive,” she said.

The award was announced Tuesday at a banquet at Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort. “I wasn’t really expecting all this,” Lee said.

Lee was one of five finalists for the award. Brad Kibler, who teaches history at Waccamaw High and who also coaches the academic team, was among them. His wife Kristi is a former district teacher of the year.

Other finalists were Kevin Ferry, a science teacher at Georgetown High; Bailey Bull Dozier, a kindergarten teacher at Kensington Elementary; and Brandi King, a math teacher at Rosemary Middle.

Lee grew up in Georgetown. She was inspired by her own seventh-grade social studies teacher at Georgetown Middle. Curry also taught social studies at the school. Lee wasn’t one of her students, but she was a friend of Curry’s children. “She’s supported me and believed in me,” Lee said.

Her interest in history was also inspired by her great-grandfather, James Martin Gleason, who was the national director of Boys Clubs of America. A former police chief in Connecticut, Gleason was recruited by former President Herbert Hoover, who chaired the nonprofit’s board.

Lee got her first teaching experience at the Studio of Dance in Georgetown. She worked with a special-needs student and realized “I wanted to change lives,” she said. She graduated with honors from Coastal Carolina University with a degree in middle level education. She’s now working on a master’s degree.

Middle school is the age group where Lee believes a teacher can have the most influence. “Their hormones are changing. You never know what child is going to walk in the door,” she said. “This is an opportunity to influence them, to be a mentor.”

To get students to share her love for history, she makes it relevant. “It’s not just about old, dead people,” Lee said.

And while the current push in the school district is for more classes in the so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – there is still a role for social studies. “Civics is about building relationships and interaction with other people,” Lee said. Those STEM topics also arise in history lessons, such as the one she did recently on the environment.

Lee is now in her third year at Waccamaw Middle. She also did her student teaching at the school with Hudson. “She taught me everything I know,” Lee said. They also coach the school’s academic team, which has won seven straight district titles.

The key to her teaching is passion. “I’ve always been passionate about history,” Lee said. “It’s contagious.”

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