Lifelong interest in education drives Polk County Schools’ District Teacher of the Year

Lyla Johnson knows well the demands and delights of being an educator.

Mother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins – teaching flows through the roots of her family tree. That helped lead Johnson into education as well, a decision that eventually brought her into the challenging field of working with exceptional children.

In that role she has found her calling, though, and her sterling work at Polk Central Elementary School has earned Johnson recognition as the 2023-24 Polk County Schools District Teacher of the Year.

As a Polk County Schools graduate herself, Johnson finds extra significance in the award.

“I have spent most of my life within these ‘Polk Schools walls,’ and the dedication of my former teachers, my colleagues and the community to the betterment of Polk County in my opinion is unprecedented,” Johnson said.

“I am so proud to have come full circle in my Polk Schools career, and I feel honored to be recognized as one of the incredible educators that have graced these hallowed halls.”

Johnson has taught in Polk County Schools since 2008, moving to Polk Central in 2010 as an adapted curriculum teacher. Working daily with exceptional children is often no easy role, and many school districts struggle to keep EC teaching positions filled.

Johnson, though, sees the field as her calling, especially given the footsteps that she often follows of her mother, who worked with EC students in Polk County Schools for more than two decades.

“Challenges are always present, but I sure do love a challenge,” she said. “When I was in high school, I’d often volunteer with the Special Olympics and an EC Pre-K summer school program with an spectacular educator and my first mentor, Mrs. Norma Hill.

“My heart was moved by this incredible population of students, and once my heart is invested into something I do not stop until my work is finished. My work is not finished yet, and I know my heart for these kids will never be finished.”

With Board of Education member Rick Covil, left, are the 2023-24 Polk County Schools Teachers of the Year, from left: Leslie Rhinehart, Polk County Middle; Sarah Reid, Tryon Elementary; Jamie McGinnis, Sunny View Elementary; Melissa Gillespie, Saluda Elementary; Lyla Johnson, Polk Central Elementary and District Teacher of the Year; Kristen Korzelius, Polk County High School.

Driving that work is a teaching philosophy that seeks to find a way to give every student a shot at classroom excellence.

“As an adapted curriculum teacher, my outlook and philosophy encompasses advocating for an inclusive classroom environment where every student, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, is given the opportunity to learn and succeed,” Johnson said. “It promotes the belief that all students have the potential to learn and grow, and it is the responsibility of educators to create an environment that encourages this growth.

“My ultimate goal for my students is to create a supportive educational environment that celebrates diversity, fosters collaboration, and ensures that every student has the opportunity to thrive academically, socially and emotionally.”

As Polk County’s District Teacher of the Year, Johnson will advance to regional competition as part of the program that eventually determines the North Carolina Teacher of the Year. And while Johnson appreciates the accolades and recognition with her award, she remains focused on the rewards she receives daily in her Polk Central classroom.

“My students are amazing little humans and I am so blessed to be their teacher,” she said. “It is so rewarding to witness and be a part of their growth over the years that they are in my charge.”

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