Leslie Rhinehart sees her job as a chemistry and engineering teacher at Polk County High School as being about much more than helping students master those subjects.
‘My approach to teaching is much like our county’s motto of doing what’s right for students,” Rhinehart said. “I keep the standards high in my classroom so that they can be successful in college. I want to help them develop skills so that what they learn in the classroom, they can take and carry on and be successful when they leave.”
Combining that desire to help her students succeed in life with her passion for science is one of the reasons that Rhinehart has been named Polk County Schools 2019 Teacher of the Year.
One teacher from each school in the district is chosen yearly as that school’s outstanding teacher. A group of Polk County administrators as well as the reigning Teacher of the Year then meet with each school winner as well as review a portfolio submission from each before choosing the district honoree.
Also earning teacher of the year selection at the school level for 2019 were:
Polk County Middle School: Matthew Putnam
Polk Central Elementary: J.J. Waddell
Saluda Elementary: Kevin Burnett
Sunny View Elementary: Ginger Turner
Tryon Elementary: Donna Godley
“This year’s Polk County Teacher of the Year shares a wealth of knowledge, from her previous work experiences at the college level and in industry, with students at PCHS on a daily basis,” said Ronette Dill, Director of Curriculum & Instruction for Polk County Schools. “Leslie Rhinehart sets high expectations for her students, encourages them to set goals for themselves and then gives her students the tools they need to be successful in her classroom and beyond.”
Rhinehart received the district honor in her fifth year at Polk County High School, where she moved after teaching at Chase High School for 10 years. Her career began in industry, working as an environmental radiochemist in Oak Ridge, Tenn., before she decided to pursue her master’s degree in chemistry at UNC Charlotte.
While at UNCC, a teaching assignment at a nearby college helped birth Rhinehart’s interest in the profession.
“I taught at Gaston College through several interim positions and really caught the teaching bug there,” she said. “When my children started school, I was faced with the decision of going back into industry or returning to teaching.”
Rhinehart opted to teach, finding what she calls “her true calling” in doing so. But she regularly brings lessons from her work in Oak Ridge to the classroom as well.
“I think my industry background gives me a different lens to look through with kids about the positive factors of different careers they might want to choose and how chemistry can help them,” Rhinehart said. “It has given me a better idea of the expectations industry has for students. I know how hard to push in the classroom and where to keep my expectations for my students to be most successful after they leave me.
“Not only did industry give me a different perspective, so did teaching at the college level. That also helped me gain some perspective on the expectations at the next level for the kids.”
Rhinehart credits her passion for science to her days as a child growing up on her family’s farm in Canton.
“I think growing up on a farm naturally led me to be more interested in science and engineering, just from the daily workings of the farm and being around farm equipment and animals,” she said.
“The chemistry part really came from my high school chemistry teacher. He both challenged me academically and fostered my own curiosity for the sciences.”