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Whitesides Elementary School second-grade teacher Stephanie Haecherl receives hugs from her students after being surprised by State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman (right) Thursday, March 14, 2019, as one of five finalist for South Carolina Teacher of the Year. Brad Nettles/Staff  

MOUNT PLEASANT — Stephanie Haecherl, a second-grade teacher at Whitesides Elementary, found out Thursday she is one of five finalists for South Carolina Teacher of the Year.

Shortly after state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman surprised her with the announcement in front of her class, Haecherl said she couldn't do what she does without the support of her colleagues, principal and the parents and community members who regularly come into the school to volunteer their time.

"Our school community is really a family," Haecherl said.

Charleston County School District Gerrita Postlewait did Haecherl's bragging for her. She pointed out Haecherl's approach to teaching incorporates science, technology, engineering, art and math in lesson plans built around improving literacy.

She also said Haecherl does an especially good job meeting students at their learning level.

"She's differentiating, so the students who come to her above grade level are given the appropriate degree of challenge, and those who need some extra support have a way to get that extra support," Postlewait said.

"She's really phenomenal at using this model. It's a model we're trying to use across the district, but it takes an incredibly high level of skill.

"She's just a natural. She's a rare talent," Postlewait added.

Teacher of the Year

Whitesides Elementary School second-grade teacher Stephanie Haecherl receives a hug from principal Cynthia Perez after being surprised by State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman (right) on Thursday, March 14, 2019, as one of five finalist for South Carolina Teacher of the Year. Brad Nettles/Staff

Haecherl is in her 12th year teaching and has earned recognition as a National Board Certified teacher and a contributor to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

She was caught off-guard by the state superintendent's surprise visit.

Her students cheered as Spearman handed off a ceremonial check, the prize for being named a state finalist.

"Boys and girls, can y'all see that big number?" Spearman said.

"Ten thousand dollars," several voices said in unison.

"That's a lot of supplies, right guys?" Haecherl said to the class.

Haecherl plans to use her platform as a teacher of the year finalist to advocate for her fellow teachers across the state. This year, teachers have been delivering passionate testimonies in Columbia as the Legislature considers an education overhaul bill and a possible 4 percent raise for teachers.

"I would like for us to unite more instead of blaming and accusing other people — 'We need to do this, we need to do that' — coming together and coming up with real solutions to the problems," Haecherl said. "There are a lot of things we need to work toward for teacher attrition. As we know, there is a shortage of teachers right now, and we really need to focus on that and ways we can improve the profession and retain good teachers. Salary is only a small component of it."

Haecherl will advance to the next stage of competition for State Teacher of the Year, which involves an interview with a panel of judges. The winner will be announced at a May 8 gala in Columbia and will receive $25,000 and a BMW to use while traveling the state as a "roving ambassador," according to a press release from Spearman's office.

Teacher of the Year

Whitesides Elementary School second-grade teacher Stephanie Haecherl (right) was surprised by State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman (left) and her son Roman Haecherl on Thursday, March 14, 2019, as one of five finalist for South Carolina Teacher of the Year. Brad Nettles/Staff

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.