Cooking her way to Teacher of the Year

Published 9:04 am Saturday, December 17, 2022

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Culinary Arts Teacher Heather West has been awarded Inspire Academy’s 2022 Teacher of the Year. West began teaching in 1993, and she has worked in Chambers County for the past 22 years.

At Inspire Academy, West teaches culinary arts and hospitality, which is the foundation course for the culinary class. She also teaches teen connections, which is basic home economics. 

“It had such a broad scope that I found interesting because it’s real-life things that we all do. If we pop a button, we have to sew it back on. We all have to eat. How are we going to get food on the table? We all have to budget our money,” West said. “So I enjoyed all of the subject matter. All of it was fascinating to me.”

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In her 30 years of teaching, West has enjoyed exploring the many areas of home economics and sharing them with her students. 

“I enjoy cooking. I enjoy the different flavors, trying new concepts, learning new terms and methods, and experimenting with things,” West said. “And I like being able to share that with the students.”

As time moved on, West’s curriculum evolved to focus on making the students college and career ready. 

One thing West realized would be important for the students is ServSafe, which is a food safety certification course. Knowing how to work with food so that people don’t get sick is incredibly important for students planning a career in the food industry.

West said that some students don’t necessarily have to go to college or a culinary school. Many students could learn on-the-job skills and then open their own restaurant one day. However, they do need to work hard to develop those skills and techniques.

“One thing is you have to do it safely. ServSafe is a credential that I offer to the students because it’s important,” West said. “It’s us, our parents, our children, our grandchildren. Everybody eats and nobody wants to be sick, right? So we need to be able to prepare food safely.”

Like many teachers at Inspire Academy, West places an emphasis on student-led small-group activities. She facilitates and guides the lessons, allowing students to ask questions and seek answers amongst themselves.

“The students learn more when they’re asking the questions,” West said. “If you provide the activities to get them engaged and then it makes them think and they have a question, they’re more likely to remember the information. If they’re invested and involved in the activity, in the information, it’s more likely to stick.”

Students come to class at certain intervals throughout the day as they are shuttled from their schools. While this schedule can present confusion, West likes that it allows her to focus her time on students who need help while letting others move forward at their own pace.

“There are times when they’re doing things that they don’t really need my help at all,” West said. “So if another kid really does need my help, then I don’t have to stand in their way while they move forward because it’s not funny if they waste a whole class period waiting.”

In this way, West is also able to provide more flexibility to the activities. Some of her students are more artistic or more goal-oriented, and West allows them to use any extra time to explore skills that they find engaging.

“Different students are going to have intelligence in different directions. Just because one person can’t do math doesn’t mean that they can’t cut the perfect julienne,” West said. “Some are very artistic. Some are very organized. I wish they’d understand that they have the skills. It’s just a matter of finding them. And that they are really smart, just in different ways.”

When West found out that she was chosen for Teacher of the Year, she couldn’t believe it. She said that she hopes the award represents that she genuinely cares about her students.

“I wasn’t looking for it. I wasn’t expecting it,” West said. “The only thing I can figure is that the students generally enjoy my classes. Because I like to have a very positive approach. They teased me about not saying the word ‘no.’”