'One of those teachers that every administrator dreams of having' -- Rachel Harkey a finalist for Teacher of the Year
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'One of those teachers that every administrator dreams of having' -- Rachel Harkey a finalist for Teacher of the Year

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MARY FRANCES WALL CENTER – Teachers are not paid enough.

That is the only thought you can come away with after spending five minutes with Rachel Harkey at the Mary Frances Wall Center. After 10 minutes you start to wonder if maybe you should have studied harder in college.

“Ms. Harkey is one of those teachers that every administrator dreams of having,” Wenzel said. “She cares extremely deeply for children and families, is extremely knowledgeable about her content, has just a depth of knowledge that, it’s what you want in a teacher.

But in all seriousness, Harkey’s passion for her work is undeniable and it is far from surprising she is one of five finalists for the Cabarrus County Schools Teacher of the year along with D'Aulan McCord at Central Cabarrus High School, Kate Clardy at Concord Middle School, Emily Wagoner at R. Brown McAllister Elementary School and Steven Stevens at Hickory Ridge Middle School.

Harkey has been a teacher at Mary Frances Wall Center for the last six years but has been molding young minds for more than two decades. After getting her bachelor’s degree in K through 6 elementary education, she went back to school to get her Master’s and a birth through kindergarten teaching certificate with a concentration on the special education population.

She spent 20 years working as a kindergarten teacher in Stanly County before coming to the Mary Frances Wall Center and her level of expertise is impossible to miss.

“As I worked I found that, in my opinion, you have to be highly skilled to work with younger children because their needs are more significant,” Harkey said. “And I just found that the methods that they need to learn and the types of focus that you have with young children were my preference.

“I really preferred to build those social emotional skills with children and I like to lay that foundation because that foundation is so crucial to their life success that if we give them skills then they’re three, four, five, six years old – which has been my experience range in teaching – you really set that child up to be successful in life.”

Harkey didn’t initially know she wanted to teach kindergarteners and pre-school students. She obviously went to school for a slightly different level of education and she said she wanted to teach third, fourth and fifth graders when she was coming out of college.

But after teaching eighth-grade math at her first ever position, she got a job teaching kindergartners and took off from there. Now, she is a senior teacher at the Mary Frances Wall Center and her impact is felt throughout the school.

“She’s a leader,” Principal Trina Wenzel said. “People look to her, go to her, you have brand new teachers, she’s someone who can go back and break things down because that first year of teaching is so overwhelming, even your 10th year of teaching can be overwhelming, when new systems come into play or new initiatives or anything like that, her approach is always, ‘OK, let’s get in there, let’s understand, let’s figure this out, and then make a play of – how can you manage this?’

“And for new staff, just knowing that there’s a teacher next door, or across the hall, whatever, that will be willing if I go in and, ‘I’m totally overwhelmed and I’m crying and I don’t know why I’m doing this,’ that you’ve got that teacher that’s going to give you that boost and say, ‘Look, you can do this.’”

The Mary Frances Wall Center is already an incredible place. The school not only features a five-star licensed childcare center but is open to three-, four- and five-year-olds who may be need help educational, physically, emotionally or even socially.

Harkey always loved working with young children, but she truly found her calling working with those who need individualized education to meet their needs so she fits in perfectly right where she is.

“We need to feel safe and secure, we need to be fed, we need to have a secure place to sleep and be safe in order to move forward in our development and learn and so we help construct that emotional regulation and those social skills that help a child function in all parts of life,” she said. 

“So, I’m going to nerd out on you for a second – so James Heckman is a Nobel laureate economist, he was looking for the most effective job-training program, and he is not an educator, he is an economist, so he searched to find the essential components because he wanted to say, ‘This is what every effective job-training program must have,’ and he found that the students in these community colleges were having difficulty learning because they couldn’t focus, couldn’t pay attention, couldn’t attend to the skills, didn’t have some of those basic learning skills, probably some self-regulation issues about, ‘I have to study, I need to commit that this is the focus of my time right now.’

“So as he investigated, he realized that those skills weren’t even taught in K-12 opportunities, that they were taught in Pre-K, in pre-school experiences. And so he determined that a high-quality pre-school experience is the most impactful part of a job-training program, because if you’ve gone through my program and I’ve equipped you with those skills to be able to focus, to be able to regulate your emotions, to being able to interact with other people, resolve conflicts, have strong social skills, just think what a wonderful worker that would be in a business, just think about what a wonderful co-worker that would be and how much more successful you would be.

“So what we’re doing is laying down those very significant foundational skills for these children that they build all their conceptual learning, like their math, their science, their reading, their writing, all those things are built upon this basis. You know, how impactful would it be if every child had high-quality pre-schooling to the opioid crisis, to school shootings? Could we decrease the violence in our society, could we increase the empathy and decrease the violence if people had all these really strong emotional skills? So I believe firmly that these skills should be continually taught kindergarten through 12th grade, but that’s our primary focus.”

The Cabarrus County Schools Teacher of the Year will be announced at a celebration in April (it is unclear how that will work now considering gatherings are limited in the state due to the threat of COVID-19). If Harkey were to win it would be her first time receiving the award.

“Ms. Harkey is one of those teachers that every administrator dreams of having,” Wenzel said. “She cares extremely deeply for children and families, is extremely knowledgeable about her content, has just a depth of knowledge that, it’s what you want in a teacher.

“On top of that she is just always flexible, always open, caring, and professional, which is just the icing on the cake, just kind of that whole well-rounded package of really being able to have fun and play, but all at the same time, everything she does has a purpose and is so intentional and can teach using any experience or anything and just has that passion for education.”

“Ms. Harkey is one of those teachers that every administrator dreams of having. She cares extremely deeply for children and families, is extremely knowledgeable about her content, has just a depth of knowledge that, it’s what you want in a teacher."

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