There was a time Elizabeth Richardson was in the mission field, with her husband Ryan and family serving the people of the small West African nation of Togo, a small strip of land located east of Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
The Richardson family worked to encourage rural churches in the third-world nation that has been independent from France since 1960. In particular, Elizabeth helped in the development of children’s ministry programs in the churches they dealt with and learned to make connections across cultural and language divides.
Today, Richardson remains committed to a mission, a daily mission of teaching her second graders at Hope Sullivan Elementary School in Southaven the concepts, lessons and practices they need to succeed going forward in their young lives.
It is her innovative means to accomplish the goal that has set her apart this year as the DeSoto County Schools (DCS) Teacher of the Year.
Richardson, who has been a teacher at Hope Sullivan since 2015, was recognized Thursday afternoon at the DCS School Board meeting, along with the individual schools’ teachers of the year.
Her teaching background has also included home schooling, teaching preschool and elementary school in Walls, Covington, Tenn. and Corning, Ohio. But it was her year in Togo that gave her an added perspective about her young charges and life in general.
“We worked with them to help develop a children’s ministry, because in West Africa, the majority of the churches are only made up of women and children,” Richardson said. “Togo is one of the poorest countries in the world, but the people there are amazing. They work unbelievably hard. It was completely humbling.”
Richardson added several of the experiences she had in her year in Togo carry over into her time at Hope Sullivan.
“This is a Title One School and while I certainly can’t compare the economic situations of my students and that in Togo, sometimes there are similar mindsets with people who are struggling with poverty,” said Richardson. “The important thing if you want to build bridges to those differences is to find ways to connect, and especially to have humility when you’re trying to build those relationships. That goes so very far.”
In addition to teaching her second graders the basics, Richardson wants to inspire them to grow as a person and uses the letters of the word “GROW” on a daily basis to remind her students of what they need to do.
“It’s our class motto,” Richardson said. “We say them every single day. ‘I choose to give my attention, respect and kindness, only do my best and work without disrupting others,’” with the first letters of “give,” “respect,” “only,” and “work” spelling out the word, “grow.”
But the class continues the recitation from there.
“My life is like a journey,” the youngsters say. “The smartest way to go is forward, not backward, bigger, not smaller. I will choose to grow.”
Richardson said she uses the saying daily to remind her students of making the right choices, because once they start making those choices, a habit is developed.
Other methods that Richardson uses to connect with students include a regular visit every 10 days from a character she calls the Queen of Ten and another character dressed out like a Rubik’s Cube to inject a drama background that she has.
Hope Sullivan provides an excellent education, Richardson confidently says.
“This school is doing everything it can to meet the needs of its students and the challenges they face,” Richardson said. “There are so many programs and training opportunities that are specific to the needs of this particular community that we have all participated in. Children who are coming here to Hope Sullivan are getting a good education.”
Richardson’s husband Ryan is also in education as a geometry instructor at Southaven High School. They and their children, Marie, age 15, attending Hernando High School; Jonah, age 12 and at Hernando Middle School; and Aaron, age 9 at Oak Grove Central Elementary School, all reside in Hernando.
As DCS Teacher of the Year, Richardson will now be considered for the state Teacher of the Year award, which will be announced later in the spring.
“It’s a very worthy thing just to be a teacher, even to just contribute a little to help them grow,” Richardson said. “I see it as a mission.”
Bob Bakken is Staff Writer and may be reached at 662-429-6397 ext. 240.