Union Academy’s Rachel Alford named Teacher of the Year

Rachel Alford

Diane Pelz – Contributing Writer

The Macon County School Board has chosen Rachel Alford, a Union Academy (UA) math teacher, as the “Teacher of the Year.”

Alford has been teaching for four years. Although she is certified in math, she also teaches character education along with facilitating drama and film clubs. Before teaching at UA, Alford taught grades 7-9 for a short time at Blue Ridge Early College, while another teacher was out on maternity leave. Following that time at Blue Ridge, she was an interim teacher at Franklin High School (FHS).

“Union Academy was not my initial decision regarding where to teach,” said Alford. “I had a teaching job lined up in Orlando [Fla.], and interviewed for Union on a whim, with no intention of taking the job. Not even 30 minutes later, I took it. It was something I felt led to do, and I haven’t regretted a single day since. I love a good challenge; if I could teach at Union, I could teach anywhere. Union is an unimaginably wonderful place to work. We have an incredible administration and staff, and the teamwork is unlike any place I’ve ever seen. I absolutely love my job.”

As far as returning to the classroom this August, Alford explained, “I prefer to look at everything as a new challenge and opportunity. It’s definitely a new frontier, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. I’ve treated every day since March like a workday and have worked diligently on updating lessons, delivering meals, monitoring students, and refining my classroom. A teacher’s work is never finished, and there are never enough hours in the day to get it done, so I prefer to look at this time as a blessing. However, I am beyond excited to get back in the classroom and see my students again. A teacher without students is like a set of lungs without air – without them, I have no purpose. Now, if only I could say they feel the same way about me!”

Alford considers her highest accomplishments to be her children. 

“As schmaltzy as it is … When they succeed, I succeed; their accomplishments are my own. Those students who enter my class sullen and argumentative, determined to drop out and refusing to work, only to find themselves blossoming at Union Academy are an accomplishment. When they graduate two years later, when their grades rise, when all the love and hard work we invest in them pays off, it’s incredible.”

She also pointed out that she is “overwhelmingly proud” that she obtained her school bus license. “I will tell everyone I know I’m a Class B driver any chance I get. And I’m a far better driver than anyone will ever give me credit.”

Alford admitted that she still faces some challenges in her career, as do all teachers. 

“When I first started teaching, my largest challenge was easily classroom management. It’s an absolute beast. It’s something you can’t learn from a textbook or a class – only from raw experience. You have to commit to learning it, which is difficult because the skill runs primarily on intuition. Fortunately, every year I improve, and I’ve grown to enjoy the struggle. There are always challenges, with any career. My largest hurdle at the moment is time. I have grandiose ideas, but I’m a slow worker and a perfectionist. It’s a gnarly combination.”

Alford does have some advice for beginning teachers. Primarily, “to give a person knowledge is to give them power. Learning is the vehicle in which to improve one’s life, and the job of the teacher shouldn’t be taken lightly. We are facilitators of this knowledge. It takes a lot of hard work and determination – just as everything worthwhile in life – but the only way to fail is to give up. As I tell my students, if you want to change your life then the first step is to see education as a gift. Use it.”

On a personal level, Alford has three cats and a dog, and she is involved in away-from-teaching pursuits. Her love for the theatre is top of her list. She performs with the Overlook Theatre Company and enjoys several facets of theatre, such as acting, dancing, singing, makeup, and costumes. She also enjoys reading and writing when there is time, which she says “is a rarity.” Plus, Alford loves to travel and thrives on taking off on her own to explore foreign countries for a week during the summer. 

She moved to Macon County from New Jersey when she was five years old after her father retired from the Air Force. She  graduated from FHS in 2008 and received her bachelor of arts degree in theater from Western Carolina University in 2012; in 2015 she received her bachelor of science degree in math and BSEd in mathematics.

One of Alford’s aspirations is to become a National Board Certified teacher. However, in the near future she sees herself becoming certified to teach theatre and French. This would give her students more electives to take as well as the opportunity to learn a foreign language, which improves their chances of getting into a four-year college. In the next 20 years however, she hope to obtain her master’s degree and Ph.D. in education. She also anticipates teaching abroad for a year and spending time observing different educational systems around the world. 

“I’m ecstatic and humbled to be Macon County’s Teacher of the Year, and I can’t wait for what the future holds,” Alford concluded.