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TEACHER OF THE YEAR FINALIST PROFILE: Columbia High Special Education Teacher Gives Students Skills, Confidence to Achieve Their Potential

Kathy StewartKathy Metze Stewart has worked as a teacher of intellectually disabled (ID) students for 38 years, more than 20 of which have been at Richland One’s Columbia High School.

“Her patience and love for her students is evident based on her continuous commitment to the field of special education,” said Columbia High Principal Craig Washington. “I find her supportive of her students and colleagues.”

Stewart has been nominated for honors several times throughout her career, and this year she was named Columbia High’s Teacher of the Year. She is one of five school-level Teachers of the Year who are in the running for the district-level distinction. The teacher chosen as the 2022-2023 Richland One Teacher of the Year will qualify for consideration for the state title.

It is evident that in the sheer breadth of her service that Stewart is teaching solely for the outcome but, if she were running on a platform, she said her campaign slogan easily could be, “The Help,” referencing the historical fiction novel and movie.

“I am sure you can recall at least one scene in which the main character, Aibileen, holds a young child and recites statements of affirmation to her,” said Stewart. “She (the main character) wanted to empower the child she loved by teaching her affirmations so (she) would know she was cared for and that her life has value.”

Stewart’s goal has been, through deeds and affirmations, to help her students and colleagues alike realize their places in the world.

“I want to help educators everywhere to be empowered – to know that they are cared for and valued,” said Stewart. “I want educators to know that (their) sacrifices, work ethic and long hours of work have not gone unnoticed. They were not given in vain.”

Stewart’s responsibilities as an ID teacher include enhancing the cognitive, social and self-care skills of her students.

“When my students learn and grow, the dynamics within their families change for the better,” said Stewart. “The more skills I can teach a student that translate into ‘real-world’ skills, the less students have to rely on [their] parents.”

Julia Coleman, chair of Columbia High’s Special Education Department, said observing Stewart’s interaction with students has developed her practices as a special education teacher.

“Ms. Stewart’s award-winning instruction enables students to use hands-on strategies in solving problems,” said Coleman. “It is encouraging to watch the enthusiasm of her students as they explain what they learned from their class investigations and reflect on their work in their own way.”

Rosland Clark and Tony Scott, who have a son in Stewart’s class, credit her with instilling the confidence he needed to participate in athletics.

“He has run track and field, played basketball as well as football, the sports he loves but never thought he would get a chance to (play),” said Clark. “With her being the wise and wonderful woman she is, she made it all happen.”

Stewart has had lots of practice becoming who she is today, realizing at an early age that she wanted to be two things in life – a mommy and a teacher. She recalls arranging her dolls and stuffed animals in her makeshift classroom and teaching them all she knew. Though her desire to teach shifted as she grew older, a college advisor’s words of wisdom and service at a summer camp for special needs students brought the dream back full circle.

“As a sophomore in college who could not decide on a major, my advisor asked me to think back on anything I had done that had given me joy,” said Stewart. “I excitedly shared my remembrance of those camp days with disabled kids, and she excitedly introduced me to special education.”

The fruit of her labor has yielded scores of students who are gainfully employed and able to live independently. Some have even gone on to further their education.

The new Richland One Teacher of the Year will be announced May 27 during the district’s Celebration 2022 employee recognition event.