Sitting in the third row of Pam Harper’s 8th-grade social studies class at Pendleton County Middle School in 1991 shortly after the launch of Operation Desert Storm, Amber Sergent uncovered a desire to learn about America’s past while also being mindful of the world of today.
A class that had focused on U.S. history from the American colonies through the Civil War suddenly added an element of current events.
“When Kuwait was invaded, I distinctly remember Ms. Harper stopping class and being so incredibly intentional about teaching us about (why) things that were happening today matter,” Sergent said. “She had us create journals where we kept up with the information.”
Harper never forgot her students were young learners in a complex world.
“She always saw us as learners who were going into this world and needed to understand this world,” Sergent said.
Now as the 2023 Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year, Sergent is preparing her students at Woodford County High School for the world they will inherit after graduation.
Path to the Classroom
Though Sergent has found success in the classroom, she didn’t initially plan on taking this career path after graduating from Pendleton County High School in 1996. She still didn’t even after graduating from Morehead State University (MSU) in 2001.
“You go to college and you think about careers and you think about families and you think about money and how to provide,” she said. “I was planning at the time when I graduated undergrad of going to law school.”
But while studying for the Law School Admission Test, Sergent kept finding herself coming back to teaching.
“It was the summer after I graduated from Morehead State,” she said. “My sister was a principal in northern Kentucky and I had a semester to kill and I actually worked as a long-term sub as a Reading Recovery assistant.”
Ultimately, she decided to enroll in graduate school at the University of Kentucky (UK) to earn a master’s and doctorate in American history. She found herself enjoying the teaching aspect of school so much that she took on the responsibility of being a teaching assistant at UK before spending time as an adjunct professor at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and Gateway Community and Technical College in Florence, Ky.
While working for NKU, Sergent played a role in the university’s outreach programs, as well as in the Program for Adult Centered Education, which serves nontraditional students who want to complete a college degree.
“I was the youngest person in the classroom,” she recalled. “All of these people were older and going for their second, third careers, and it always came back to this: It didn’t matter if I was working with elementary reading specialists or working at Northern Kentucky University with adults thinking about career changes. It doesn’t matter the age, it’s the same principles: respect, understanding and to be pushed, and how those all melt together.”
With those principles in mind, Sergent jumped on the opportunity to teach high school students in a dual-credit class.
“I was like, ‘Sure,’” she said. “I’ve worked with all of these different ages. Let’s do this.” She said that’s when she realized this was her niche.
Return to Pendleton County and Impact in Woodford County
Sergent returned to Pendleton County High School in 2014 to teach social studies and to earn a master’s of secondary social studies education from MSU.
“There are many Kentuckys,” she said. “We find parallels of cultural heritage and richness of ties to family, community and understanding that bind us together with the land. We all have a special relationship that land means more to us than simply a transaction. So going back home to Pendleton, in that space, it was neat.
“You understand the kids and you understand the space and that can be hard for teachers when they switch schools, when they move to a new environment and they’re trying to understand places and ties to communities. But, at the end of the day, if we understand the rich heritage that is viewed as a Kentuckian, then any place and any space can become a home to you.”
After spending three years in Pendleton County, Sergent found a new home, this time at Woodford County High School, where her impact can be felt throughout the school.
“In working with Dr. Sergent, I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand how fair and equitable she is with students, in every instance demonstrating compassion and care,” said Morgan Howell, principal of Woodford County High School. “She takes time to truly understand and listen to student concerns both in and out of the classroom while working to establish strong relationships. The love and care she has for her students is exceptional. It is hard to put into words and quantify the difference someone can make in another person’s life, but it is without a doubt that she displays the qualities of an exceptional teacher.”
Sergent said one of her main goals in the classroom is to find ways for her students to fall in love with the past the same way she did back in Harper’s classroom at Pendleton County Middle School.
“The very first thing, it doesn’t matter what we’re using as a resource, we have to first invest in the ‘Why does this matter?’” she said. “Why does this matter to you at 15, 16, 17, 18 years old beyond a test, beyond a score? That’s the first thing of establishing a relationship to the past and understanding human beings making decisions and affecting others.”
Sergent says her classroom is where “old school and new school come together.” She creates a website for every class where students can find resources and have collaborative discussions, yet she still relies on lectures and has open office hours for her students.
Sergent also believes in making education fun by incorporating games. One of her favorite lessons is called Gilded Age Monopoly.
“Our larger question was, ‘Was greed a good thing during the Gilded Age?’” she said. “Students evaluated the extent to which the Gilded Age was both a period of prosperity and progress, and also a period of strife and inequality. They consistently asked themselves if they wished to play it safe or go for broke, rolling the dice through five major Monopoly stations collecting money, purchasing property and, most importantly, learning history.
“What I loved most was the ingenuity, engagement, empowerment and conversations that took place among my students. It was a dialogue, not a discussion, which fueled the free exchange of ideas and thoughts about the power of possessions in modern American history.”
Sergent serves as a co-director of summer school at Woodford County High School, as well as the director of Homework Club, an educational enrichment program she inherited four years ago.
Homework Club is free after-school tutoring that meets for an hour and a half on Tuesdays and Wednesdays every week. This year, Sergent introduced a peer mentor program to the club that encourages sophomore, junior and senior students to become mentors and encourage academic achievement.
Sergent also is an academic coach for the Woodford County football team.
Three years ago, Dennis Johnson, head coach of the team, asked Sergent to help three seniors study for the ACT.
“These three students were offered scholarships to play football at the collegiate level, but they could receive significant financial assistance if they raised their ACT scores in two areas,” she explained. “What began as a singular activity to help three students became a coaching and advising position for our football program.”
Working with student-athletes has been one of the most rewarding experiences of her academic career, Sergent said.
“It has been a journey to increase achievement and awareness of diversity,” she said. “I better understand the weight of the stigma associated with male football players and their academics. …This includes hard talks about racial and ethnic stigmas and class disadvantages that occur within high school athletics and academic achievement.”
Sergent meets regularly with the coaching staff to collaborate and craft interventions to support student-athlete well-being. The staff hosts sessions throughout the school year before weight training that encourages positive coping skills, strong interpersonal communication and self-advocacy skills that help students to manage and balance their lives.
“She has been very instrumental in the growth of our football program and student-athletes,” Johnson said.
There are many nights Sergent stays late after football practice to help the student-athletes, and even comes in on Sunday to work with the players who are in Advanced Placement courses.
“It takes a special person to understand the bond, the attitude and the ups and downs of an athlete,” Johnson said. “She’s done really, really well. The athletic part is secondary compared to the academic part, and she’s really taken that by storm. Our football program and all our students have great respect for her.”
2023 Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year
Although Sergent has received several accolades throughout her career – including now being named the 2023 Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year during a Sept. 20 ceremony – she says her biggest professional accomplishment is her capacity for love.
“My professional accomplishment is the day I leave the classroom, students knew they were loved,” she said. “They were supported, they were at times hollered at, they were expected to succeed always and … they were loved. To know that a student had a space, had a place, … they felt loved and felt inspired to be more than the day before, to me that’s the professional accomplishment.”
Still, being named the 2023 Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year is “surreal” and “humbling,” Sergent said.
“I can name off so many teachers in Woodford County High School that make certain that students have food in their homes,” she said. “And I think right now about the teachers in eastern Kentucky who are going through so much personally and their hearts are so heavy for their students and what they’re enduring.”
As Kentucky’s High School Teacher of the Year, Sergent plans to try to understand the stories of the staff who make up Kentucky’s schools and ensure their stories are told.
“It’s not just teachers,” she said. “It’s faculty. When we think about the way that a school works as designed, the heart and soul of it is the staff as a whole.”
That sense of community in education isn’t a new concept for Sergent. It’s yet another lesson learned from Harper, one she said she is thankful to have learned.
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