Laura Jane Howald’s work with Polk Central pre-kindergarten students begins before any of those children ever set foot in Howald’s classroom.

Days before the start of a new school year, Howald will begin visiting the homes of her students, working to start constructing a foundation that she sees as vital for each child’s success.

“Home visits, family contacts and building relationships are critical for student success, and a vital component of my teaching practice,” Howald said. “Home visits serve many purposes, including laying the foundational groundwork for the child-family-teacher relationship.

“Parents are a child’s first teacher, so getting to know each child in their home environment helps build a child’s comfort level, allows each family to share important information about their child and family, and identify interests that I can use to guide lessons throughout the year. And, should problems or challenges arise, my families and I address them together, to find solutions as quickly as possible. FInally, building relationships with each child in my class is crucial. I want children to feel safe, secure, happy, and comfortable with me, as relationships are the cornerstone for positive outcomes, as well as the pipeline to success not only within the classroom, but outside as well.”

Howald’s approach to working with Polk County Schools’ newest students has been recognized with her selection as the district’s 2021 Teacher of the Year. Howald was chosen by a committee that included district staff and the 2020 Teacher of the Year honorees at each school.

It marks the second time that Howald has been named the top teacher in a district, having also been honored by Asheville City Schools in 2015. It’s unusual to see a pre-kindergarten teacher so recognized, but Howald is not a common educator.

“During my 20 years as an administrator, I have found (Howald) to be within the top one percent of all teachers in classroom organization, instruction and management,” said Polk Central Principal Jan Crump. “Laura Jane Howald exemplifies every quality a master teacher should represent.”

2021 Teachers of the Year
Polk Central: Laura Jane Howald
Polk County High: Dawn Forward
Polk County Middle: Kathryn Patterson
Saluda Elementary: Ginger Rackley
Sunny View: Stephanie Blanton
Tryon Elementary: Wendi Owens
District: Laura Jane Howald, Polk Central

Those qualities are rooted in Howald’s focus on the importance of early childhood education, beliefs that surface every day inside her room at Polk Central.

“Education of the whole child is crucial to prepare young children for success in school and life,” she said “As an early childhood educator, I work to nurture children in all areas of development, including social-emotional skills, cognition, language, literacy, math, science, and fine and gross motor skills.

“I strive to have my classroom be a warm, safe, loving, caring and compassionate community of learners where each child feels valued and supported, but also encouraged, challenged and expected to do their best. The whole child approach supports not only academic development, but also lifelong learning and preparation for success beyond the classroom.”

Though only in her second year in Polk County Schools, Howald has already begun making an impact across the district, becoming a leader in early education efforts and a voice for those students.

“Driven by her dedication to students and her passion for teaching and learning, Ms. Howald has quickly proven to be one of the best teachers to serve students in Polk County,” said Polk County Superintendent Aaron Greene. “Teaching PreK students is definitely an art, and Laura Jane Howald is a master in this arena.

“In addition to being a tremendous leader in the classroom, Ms. Howald is a respected leader in her program and district. Polk Central colleagues will tell you she has transformed an already solid PreK program into a model for the entire district. Peers seek out Ms. Howald to learn from her, plan with her and receive feedback on their own efforts. Ms. Howald understands the importance of her role as a mentor and leader in her department and school. Her impact extends well beyond her classroom and benefits a very large number of students and teachers.”

As Polk County’s Teacher of the Year, Howald will represent the district in regional competition. Putting together a teaching portfolio for that competition gives Howald an opportunity to share more about the concept of “Be Stronger, Together,” a core tenet of her teaching approach this year.

“Building a classroom ‘family’ is crucial for individual children, small and large group dynamics, and our broader classroom community,” she said. “My platform of ‘Be Stronger, Together’ stems from this philosophy. One of the most important things I do in my classroom is assist daily in the development and support of a child’s social-emotional competence, or the skills each child needs to take care of him or herself within and across classroom and home settings.

“My classroom supports the needs of individuals and our larger classroom family by practicing kindness, compassion, collaboration, safety and respect for all. We are a strong, cohesive classroom family.”

In addition to her time as a teacher, Howald has served in roles relating to childhood education outside the classroom. Building strong children socially and academically is her passion, and Howald believes she has found a perfect place in which to continue that work in Polk County.

“The first 2,000 days of a child’s life can lay foundational skills for future success,” she said. “Investing in early childhood education, as Polk County Schools has done, improves developmental outcomes and school readiness for our county, state and nation’s youngest learners.

“An investment in early childhood can have a profound impact across the lifespan, as children who receive a top-quality early childhood education are more likely to have higher levels of cognition, better social-emotional skills, higher rates of school attendance, are more likely to graduate from school, and are less likely to be arrested or struggle with substance or alcohol abuse as adults. Optimizing the early years of children’s lives is the best investment our society can make for the future.”