Marching into education

Throughout Riley Hefner’s time at Cedar Shoals High School, she believed that she wasn’t performing well enough. She was not a proficient test taker and struggled to turn in homework on time because of her ADHD, which she was officially diagnosed with later on. 

Fortunately, teachers such as former band director Dr. Zandra Bell-McRoy were willing to work with her. Bell-McRoy offered Hefner a position as the drum major for the marching band, one of the most important roles in the group. Drum majors are in charge of directing the entire marching band.

“While Riley was not the best marcher or best student, she was one of the hardest working students I have ever taught. She had no quit in her, she devoted herself to getting better, learning more, and pushing herself. You can’t teach that. She had that special something that drum majors have to have. I still see that characteristic in her today,” Bell-McRoy said.

After graduating from Cedar in 2018, Hefner attended the University of North Georgia before transferring to the University of Georgia. Receiving her bachelor’s degree in education gave her the opportunity to pursue her dream of teaching.

“Not only was the marching band such a unique community, but it really helped me grow and become more confident. I’d always known I wanted to be a teacher, I just didn’t know what subject until I was in college. Marching band really helped me develop an understanding of ‘I like teaching people and want to help them learn,’” Hefner said.

After Hefner earned a teaching certificate, she wanted to continue studying education at UGA and work toward a master’s degree.

“When I started college I knew that I wanted to eventually transfer to UGA because it has a really great education department. UGA does this program called Double Dawgs, so I was able to do some of my master’s classes while still in undergrad which saved a lot of money,” Hefner said. “It also helped me create a really good relationship with my professors.”

Those relationships were important because Hefner found herself unhappy with her student teaching placement, making her question if she even wanted to be a teacher. Thinking back on positive memories in Clarke County was the deciding factor in Hefner applying for a job where she grew up.

“When I was doing my student teaching, I was in a different county. And it really was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I hate this. Like, am I going to be a teacher anymore? This is horrible,’ and then I really just thought back to what I experienced when I was a student in Clarke County. Everything about education and teaching really just aligned with my own personal beliefs and pedagogy,” Hefner said.

TALENTED TEACHING: Riley Hefner teaches at the front of the classroom teaching. She has made an effort to help her students as much as possible throughout her first year at Hilsman Middle School. “I want my students to be receptive of each other and have this community where we can ask questions and we can learn. We’re helping our peers out and learning from each other’s experiences,” Hefner said. Photo by Isabella Morgan.

The 2023-24 school year is Hefner’s first year teaching, where she teaches sixth grade social studies at Hilsman Middle School. Hefner’s experience as a former drum major plays a key role in the way she goes about teaching her students.

“I’m really not that much older than my students — 12 years older or so. Going from being a student leader, where I was the one in charge, really helps me understand how to be a leader but still be on the same page with my students. I really believe students have the right to take autonomy in their education and I love student-led classrooms. As a drum major, it’s not like I was the director. I wasn’t making final calls; I was just enforcing rules,” Hefner said.

After the current Cedar band director Devin Driskell was in a motorcycle accident, Hefner stepped up to help guide the drum majors.

“Mr. Driskell reached out and said he needed all hands on deck,” Hefner said. “The drum majors are the ones conducting the band, so I was just helping facilitate communication between the band staff and student leaders and then from student leaders to students.”

Hefner finds motivation through her students. She recalls helping a student who was struggling with test taking. She then tutored him and the student went on to get a 90% on his next test. This situation made Hefner realize that this was her “why” — her reason for becoming a teacher in the first place.

“That’s one of the reasons why I love being a teacher. I like watching the light bulb go off when a kid finally gets something, especially if they’re working hard,” Hefner said. “Seeing the joy on his face, I was like, ‘This is why I’m doing it at this level of being in the classroom (in middle school). Seeing him take pride in himself and have the realization of ‘Oh my gosh, I am capable of this,’ was really great. Things like that are the bright spots as a teacher.”

Aiden Poe

Junior Aiden Poe is a current staff writer for Cedar BluePrints.

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