Editor's Note: St. Elizabeth Teacher Andrea Farris was named the 2021 TEACHER OF THE YEAR in the Clarksdale Press Register, Best of balloting taken last month.
Things came in full circle when Andrea Farris accepted a teaching position at St. Elizabeth Catholic School four years ago.
Farris attended St. Elizabeth for first through eighth grade before graduating from Lee Academy in 1979. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Delta State University in 1984. She worked for Coahoma Bank, which is now CB&S Bank, and then moved to Memphis where she worked for Prudential Based Securities. She went back to school and earned her masters of arts in teaching from Memphis State University in 1990. It is now the University of Memphis.
“I just decided the business world wasn’t for me,” Farris said. “I had a friend going back to school in speech pathology and she was thinking about working the schools and I said, ‘You know, I think I’d like to do that.’ I thought when I went to college in the beginning, ‘I don’t want to be a teacher. That’s what everybody does.’ So, I just didn’t do it. I went into business, but I finally decided after a couple of years of business I wanted to be a teacher.”
Farris decided she wanted to teach younger kids in elementary school. Before earning her teaching degree, she decided to move back to Clarksdale. She is now in her 30th year of teaching in Clarksdale.
She taught at Riverton Elementary School in the Clarksdale Municipal School District for her first eight years. She took a position at Lyon Elementary School in the Coahoma County School District the next 18 years. She has taught second grade the past four years at St. Elizabeth Catholic School.
Farris’ efforts earned her the Clarksdale’s Best Teacher of the Year.
“I guess realizing that everybody doesn’t learn the same way,” said Farris on the key to being a successful teacher. “They all have different needs. It’s not a one size fits all.”
Farris said student learn in auditory, kinesthetic and visual. To accommodate everyone, she said he has hands-on activities, group activities, discussions and she works with children individually.
“I think you have to teach to the whole child. You have to worry about their emotional health, too,” Farris said. “We’re not just academics here. I have to be real with them. I have to let them show me their feelings and I have to let them see my feelings.”
Farris said when her dog died after having to be put to sleep she cried in front of students. When her brother became sick and died a month ago, she said her students saw how upset she was.
“You have to love the kids because they’re not going to learn in an environment where they don’t feel loved and safe,” Farris said. “That’s a big part of it. If they thought I didn’t care about them, they probably wouldn’t care about doing their work.”
She said some students like to be hugged, but that has been more difficult during the COVID pandemic.
Farris did not know what she did in 2020-21 to be named the community’s top teacher.
“I’m shocked,” Farris said.
Farris taught first grade the entire time and special education for two years in the public school system.
“I always thought that I would make it to 25 years and that I could decide after that when I wanted to retire year by year,” Farris said. “I taught 26 years and a friend of mine called me and said they were going to have an opening here. This was kind of like a dream job. Because I went to school here, it would be kind of nice to come full circle and come back.”
Farris’ fond memories as an educator span throughout the entire 30 years. She recalled one of her students in her early days teaching at Riverton Elementary School.
“I had a child years ago who, when I was teaching first grade, he had never been to school, not even in kindergarten,” Farris said. “He had no clue how to act socially or academically and he became one of my best students. It was just watching him he had that just hunger for learning. Just watching him every day, the more he learned, he just got so confident. He was one of my top readers by the end of the year.”
One major difference between St. Elizabeth Catholic School and teaching in the public schools is she is now able to bring religion in the classroom.
“In public school, the state requires so much paperwork, a lot of paperwork,” Farris said. “So many government regulations. We have regulations through the diocese and all, but I guess we don’t have as much of the paperwork. I feel like we can focus more on the kids. Plus, we have a faith-build school. We can pray. We can talk about God and Jesus. To me, that makes a difference.”
St. Elizabeth Catholic School has a religion class and Mass every Thursday. There is religious diversity in the school as one of her top students is Jewish.
“Father asked a question about the gospel this morning he read and who answered the question but my little Jewish child?” Farris said. “She was listening and she answered it.”
When Farris was a student, she said there were nuns at St. Elizabeth Catholic School. While there are no longer nuns and the faculty and staff is different from when she was a student, her love for the school remains the same.
“It’s kind of family-oriented it feels like,” Farris said. “It feels like family here. It’s a wonderful curriculum. I don’t even know how to explain how wonderful this place is. We have a good administration.
“I feel like I still learn every day. I learn from these kids. If I don’t know something they ask, we’ll get the phone out and Google and try to tell them and show them pictures.”
Farris said her students are not at an age where they Google answers to their homework assignments, but parents may use that to help children.
“The only thing they’re interested in as far as technology is playing these games they can play with each other – Fort Knight and whatever else is out there.” Farris said.
Farris said she is trying to learn about technology herself as it is not strong her point.
“I’ll be honest,” Farris said. “It’s hard. I just kind of have to force myself to do some things and I get on the internet and Google things on how to find ideas for things like that.”
She does approach other teachers for help.
Technology, particularly email and texting, makes it much easier to communicate with parents. Most parents do not bother her at home unless it is absolutely necessary. She always takes the time to respond to messages.
“I guess I’m lucky not being married not having kids,” Farris said. “I have the time to do that. I answer them. Some of them call and say, ‘We don’t have our spelling words. Do you have a list?’ So I take a picture of it if I have it with me. That’s if I’m still here. I usually don’t have it at home. I’ll take a picture of something and send it to them.”
COVID has been a recent obstacle for Farris and teachers everywhere.
It was virtual learning for the final months of the 2019-20 school year. Work was online and there were Zoom classes.
“Last year, it was basically trial and error, really,” Farris said. “We were just diving in not knowing what we were doing, it felt like. It was just kind of like blind leading the blind.”
Students are back in school five days a week this year, but shields are on their desks, temperatures are taken every morning, they walk around room and meet in groups in masks, use hand sanitizer, are spaced out, wash hands and bring water bottles instead of using water fountains.
Farris said only two of her students contracted COVID. One of those students caught it from being quarantined with a parent who had COVID.