Role modeling comes full circle for Bennett School educator Kristen Garner

Pittsboro, NC – Before classrooms closed to limit the spread of COVID-19, Bennett School instructional assistant Kristen Garner was on the playground there when she overheard a couple of kids playing school. 

Kristen Garner

“One of the girls was playing Ms. Garner, and it made me smile and took me back to when I was 5 years old, pretending to be Mrs. Dowdy teaching my brother,” Garner said. 

Imitation is the best form of flattery. 

Another smile stretched across Garner’s face during a Zoom meeting with her school colleagues when Chatham County Schools Superintendent Dr. Derrick D. Jordan informed the group that she is the district’s Instructional Assistant of the Year. 

“In order to have a strong school system, we have to have folks who are working together and always — always — concentrated on doing good things for kids,” Jordan said. “I’m always pleased to share in this type of recognition because it underscores that reality, that we need everybody in order to do good things for our kids.”

Back when Garner was a young girl pretending to be a teacher, she was mimicking Bennett educator Amy Dowdy.

Amy Dowdy and Kristen Garner

“My kindergarten teacher and my hero,” Garner explained. “She is the reason I wanted to teach. I always dreamed that one day I would be just like her.” 

“Oh, honey, she has outdone me,” Dowdy insisted. “I wish that I could be like her.”

Dowdy’s been teaching for a long time. She knows what she’s doing. Yet Garner has been able to come alongside her and add some innovation to her ideas, some tech to her teaching. 

“She benefitted from my veteran ideas,” Dowdy said. “We complement each other.

“It just shows that teachers are not just people that teach the alphabet and math. We teach values. We change lives.” 

Garner’s approach to her work is tireless, said Dr. Carla Neal, the principal at Bennett. Anything creative around the school that needs doing, Garner gets the call, she said. 

“She is 100 percent my go-to person,” Neal said. 

Garner said it’s who she is. 

“I am a fixer; I want to fix any situation that I can,” said Garner, who teaches preschool students. “I am very organized and like for things to be in order. I am always searching for unique ways to help the children. I stay late after school making sure that everything is ready for the next day so that when the children come in we are ready to learn. I make copies, laminate materials and keep the room clean, along with designing the bulletin boards and doors to make our classroom inviting and to share student work for others to see.”

In other words, Garner is an educator. 

She’s working toward a bachelor’s degree that will position her to run her own classroom. 

“She’s going to be a wonderful classroom teacher. She’s the full package,” Neal said. 

She’s the Chatham County Schools Instructional Assistant of the Year.

“I started teaching when I was 5 years old. My first student was my little brother,” Garner said. “Every day, I would come home from kindergarten, and I would teach him everything I had learned that day. I knew from the first day I started school that teaching kids is what I wanted to do.”