When social studies teacher Mrs. Renata Elder was eating breakfast during a faculty meeting last May, she was surprised to find out she was named as the 2018-19 Cedar Shoals High School Teacher of the Year.
“I was eating a biscuit. I had a faculty meeting, and I didn’t think that I was going to win because I had some strong competitors. I supported all of them because they’re all great teachers, but I was shocked, surprised, happy, and in tears. I feel honored,” Elder said.
Though she grew up in Athens and attended Winterville Elementary School and Burney Harris-Lyons Middle School, Elder’s educational experience was defined by race. She experienced the struggles of desegregation just to get a fair education.
“There was a lot of racial tension because I started going to elementary school when schools were becoming more desegregated. I went to a school here in Clarke County and it was predominantly white,” said Elder.
Elder saw racism, biased teachers and at times a low quality education, but that didn’t stop her from learning.
“To put this nicely, they were racist. They gave us a hard time to the point that my Mom pretty much had to come into the classroom about almost every day,” Elder said.
Elder wasn’t treated like other kids just because of her race. She already knew how to read and write from her mom, so teachers had to figure out how to meet her individual needs. Now, Elder wants every child to have a fair education.
“When I started school, I was already reading and writing because my mom taught us at home. They wanted to put me in lower classes. When I think about that time, that’s why I’m a teacher today because I want to be fair to all of my students. I give all of my students an opportunity, and I don’t want students to experience what I experienced in my childhood,” Elder said.
Elder’s path to the award and to teaching at Cedar Shoals was not linear, but each experience helped her along the way.
“My son and my parents inspired me to become an educator. They wanted me to be a teacher all along but I kept saying ‘No, I don’t want to be a teacher. I don’t want to teach. I want to be a lawyer.’ But God always has a different path for you,” Elder said.
From being a mother of four children, teaching four advanced placement government classes and one 9th grade American government class, Elder has her workload cut out for her from day to day. Still, she volunteers several times a week through an organization she co-founded called Destined Inc.
“I tutor kids that are having trouble with reading now. I don’t charge for it, so I do two hours of reading. I’m helping some kids that cannot afford tutoring,” Elder said.
Volunteering since she was little, Elder would go out to help at food banks, clean the garden in churches, schools or parks, and visit the elderly.
“My parents have always been involved in the community. At an early age, I remember going to the food banks and serving people out of our home. They’ve always taken us to volunteer to do some form of community service,” Elder said.
Those values are now passed down to Elder’s students in 9th grade.
“I talk to the students about volunteering. Like last year, I would say ‘you need to volunteer because when you go to college, this is one of the things they look at is community service.’ I love to give back. I think it is a civic duty to help each other,” Elder said.
Elder has been volunteering as a literacy tutor for about twenty years now. She started Destined, Inc. after she graduated from Piedmont College.
“I started a reading program so that I could have kids during the summer months to prevent the summer slide in reading, and that started in 1999. I’m still doing it to this day,” Elder said.
A mother to four children, all Cedar Shoals graduates, Elder’s oldest son Antonio graduated in 2010. He now works in the technology field. Her oldest daughter Brianna, who graduated in 2012, works for the Centers for Disease Control. More recently, her son Daniel graduated in 2016 and became a real estate agent and full time musician, and Elder’s youngest daughter Jeanetta graduated in 2019 and now attends Emmanuel College to study biology.
“My mom inspired me to always stand up for what’s right, be strong, be a role model to others. She pushes me out of my comfort zone and tells me to push through and finish whatever I start,” Jeanetta Elder said.
No matter what kind of day it is, Mrs. Elder strives to be a role model for her daughter.
“She is basically my best friend. She has supported me in everything that I have done from when I was a little girl and up until now. She helps me with homework sometimes, and if she doesn’t know then she will ask someone else to make sure I understand. She goes out of her way to make sure that I have everything that I need, but it’s not just me. It’s my siblings and my cousins also. She is a great role model, very smart, just genuinely sweet, nice, caring person,” Jeanetta said.
Jeanetta sees her mom’s impact on the community since she’s so involved and interactive with her students.
“She takes time out of her busy schedule to tutor young kids who needs help learning how to read or just needing the help with anything. She also stays after school for the students at Cedar who are in her class or who take E2020 to make sure they finish the E2020 course and get that class credit,” Jeanetta said.
Before teaching social studies, Mrs. Elder worked as a special education teacher, but she sought a change so that she could spend more time with her own children and family.
“I try not to, but sometimes I miss out on activities with my kids. That was another reason why I wanted to come out of special ed because (Jeanetta’s) first three years of high school, she was playing basketball and I couldn’t attend some of the games because of IEP meetings,” Elder said.
Elder believes that there is always a goal in education, and every student can achieve that goal by putting their best effort in, no matter what they are going through.
“My philosophy on education is that all students can learn if given an opportunity. I don’t think that there is a child who cannot learn. I think as teachers, we have to develop our lessons to meet the needs of our students,” Elder said.
Her students see this kind of effort in her classroom, too.
“I think Mrs. Elder is an awesome teacher. She really pushes her students to do their best and makes the class so enjoyable that I even see upperclassmen coming back just to say hi. She provides the environment for students to feel as if they’re learning about something from a friend,” freshman Marcus Welch said.