Spotlight: Heather Hurt (AL '18)February 25, 2019
After a decade working in real estate, with an infant and a toddler at home, Heather Hurt (AL ’18) went back to school to begin her career as an educator. She knows it was the right move: “Teaching is not just a job—it is my passion.” Heather won Alabama’s 2018-19 Milken Educator Award at Vestavia Hills Elementary on October 24, 2018.
Milken Family Foundation: You teach in your hometown. What is that like?
Heather Hurt: My goal was to teach in Vestavia so that I could teach where my boys go to school. There are so many things I love about teaching here. I teach my friends’ kids or see them around the school. I run into students at the grocery store, ballpark and pretty much everywhere I go. I get to teach in the same classroom that I learned in myself as a fifth-grader. I went to kindergarten through 12th grade at Vestavia Hills schools, and my boys will do the same.
MFF: How did you land in education?
Heather: My whole life I wanted to be a teacher. Back in fifth grade, when I was a student in the exact classroom where I now teach, I knew I wanted to become a teacher. I would play school in there with a friend of mine. Then, when I went to the University of Alabama, I was hoping to pursue a teaching career and joined the education department. I was focused on secondary education, but something about that just didn’t feel right. I knew I didn’t want to teach little kids, and the option of teaching fifth grade, or upper elementary students, never crossed my mind. I switched to the business school.
After graduation I worked as a realtor together with my parents. I learned a lot about business and running a company. It was the perfect fit for what I needed at that time. But I felt like I was lacking a creative outlet, so I started a side business making hand-stamped flour sack towels that I sold at craft fairs and to retail stores. I was also an adult educator at my office.
For those 10 years, I worked sporadically with my sister-in-law in her third-grade classroom. Once we did a New York week. For math we measured the New York marathon. For history we taught about immigration, Ellis Island, how the city has evolved. After that she just kept asking me, “So when are you going to do it? When are you going to become a teacher?” I took the GRE when my youngest was two weeks old and went to graduate school a few months later. It was a most challenging year, but I’m so glad that I did it.
MFF: How did you get through your first year of teaching?
Heather: I had a fantastic partner and mentor named Ashley Perry. Coming in as an older adult was hard, but I had Billie Jean Price, another new teacher my age, and that helped me get through the challenges. We were able to bond, commiserate and brainstorm together, all without judgment. Being older was beneficial in the sense that I already had some life experience and my own children. I knew how I would want things to be done in my kid’s classroom.
Overall, it was a great year. I knew a lot, but there was also a lot that I didn’t know. It was exciting, but also challenging. I saw what I wanted to be, but it was frustrating when I couldn’t reach it yet—of course, you can’t do it all in the first year. Things in my classroom have changed so much since then, which makes me hopeful. Over time, I’ve learned that just because you want things in your classroom to be a certain way, sometimes you try them and they don’t work, or they weren’t actually what you needed.
MFF: What do you like about teaching elementary students?
Heather: I love 10- and 11-year-olds. They are funny, can take my sarcasm, and can be sarcastic on their own. They are interesting and have opinions about things. We like a lot of the same things. We have something called “talent teams” at our school, and because I’m a big Harry Potter fan, my talent team—even though it’s not really a talent—is a Harry Potter fan club. They love it and I love it, so the relationship isn’t forced.
I also find the curriculums interesting. When I was in school for secondary education, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to teach English, social studies or math. As a teacher in upper elementary, I’m able to be more of a generalist, with a focus on math, science and history.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Heather: My sister-in-law, Shelly Chumly, was definitely very active in getting me into the classroom. I will forever be grateful to her. My fourth-grade teacher, Anne Lyons, made that year stand out. My professor from Samford University, Dr. David Little, has been a role model as far as demonstrating what it means to love your students. I learned essential educational skills from him, like behavior management and how to teach reading.
There are so many people in my school system who are just fantastic teachers. We’re all different people so we all have different styles. Everything I do may not work for others and what they do may not work for me, but I think it’s amazing how each educator makes great things happen, all in their own way.
MFF: What is your biggest challenge in the classroom?
Heather: Differentiation is very important to me. I have a very bright population of students and we have a very high-achieving school system. It is important to me to reach those students who have already mastered the elementary standards, particularly in math. Of course, it is important to differentiate down to my other students as well. But I find it more challenging to meet the needs of gifted students, and I am continually striving to better that process. The individualization aspect makes this challenging. A gifted math student isn’t necessarily gifted in all math, so I have to question them and figure out what piece they need or what they are interested in. The process is time-consuming, but it is important to me, so I get it done.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Heather: When I heard dignitaries were coming to visit our school, I immediately questioned why they would be coming here. There are so many other schools in our system that are newer, look nicer and have easier access. Being the committee leader for planning “lighthouse” events at our school, I was thinking of the strategic side of things. An elementary school is not always clean, and it took a lot of work to get everything ready for our visitors. I knew something else was going on here, but to say that I was surprised that it all had been for me is a complete understatement.
During the notification, as they were talking about the criteria for winning the Award, I was looking around and thinking about all of the people in the building it could have been. For them to have called my name, after thinking that and after all we had done to get everything ready—it was a shock.
MFF: How did your students respond to your Milken Award?
Heather: When I got up there to accept the Award I asked if my son and my students could join me so that I could give them all a hug and take a picture with them. They were just beyond thrilled. In fact, there were people guiding me to the different places I needed to be for pictures and receptions, but they really couldn’t drag me away from the kids. Everything I do is for my students, and that never stops.
I do think the Award has had a lasting impact on all the other students in our building. I run into people at the grocery store and they’ll say, “My child keeps talking about that assembly.” I think students are really proud of me and our school system.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Heather: I’m working towards all four components of the National Board certification. I’m going to use some of the money to pay for my registration fees. I turned 40 in December and our 15th wedding anniversary is coming up, so I’m sure we will use some of it to go on a trip. Also, I am going to do something with my class to celebrate, because everything I have done and achieved has been for my students. Every class I go to, every article or blog post I read, and every podcast I listen to—it’s all aimed at how to make myself better so that my students get a better education.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Heather: I think it is super important that people find out what their strengths are. For me, being able to individualize is a strength, as well as a passion. It is when those come together that I can be successful, more so than if I’m trying to put myself into something that is not a strength of mine. I think success is finding what you love and loving what you do. For me, teaching is not just a job—it is my passion.
I love going to school every day and finding new ways to keep the kids engaged. Just today in my class we did a Boston Massacre room transformation. I turned the air up real high so it was nice and cold in there. We had crowd noise. Students wore little name tags that read “Boston Police Department Detective.” They had to decide if it was a murder, self-defense or an accident. To me, that’s a successful lesson; the students are engaged, they feel transported, they are enjoying it, and they are a part of it. For both kids and adults, if you put your mind to something and you focus your energy on that, you can be successful. I think success looks like being proud of your end result, that you are happy with what you’ve done and that you’d want to share it with others.
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