LAKE CITY, S.C. — Gariel Pierce came to Lake City from Illinois after she joined Teach for America.
Pierce says her approach to teaching is best described as “holistic.”
“My long-term professional goal is to spend time researching holistic approaches in education to hopefully minimize the school to prison pipeline,” Pierce said.
Teacher of the Year
As a second-year teacher, Pierce was recently named the Teacher of the Year at Main Street Elementary School in Arts and Leadership in Lake City.
“She is innovative,” said her principal, Sharon Williams. “It is beautiful to watch her in the classroom. Her students love her; some have a crush on her.”
Williams said Pierce will have the opportunity to compete for District Teacher of the Year.
“I feel very confident in her,” Williams said.
Williams said Pierce knows her content and her students. She engages her students in the learning, Williams said. She described Pierce as well-rounded, always prepared and looking ahead. Her exuberant attitude in the classroom is infectious, she added.
“She is also a data-driven person,” Williams said.
Williams said Pierce’s passion for teaching even came across in her job interview, which was conducted through Zoom.
“She actually sang a song she used to help her students (during student teaching) learn about the branches of government,” Williams said.
Pierce got the job. She was hired as a fourth-grade teacher.
Pierce says she continues to use rap, chants and other music to create songs to help students learn certain material.
Teach for America
Teach for America, a nonprofit organization with a mission to enlist as many of the nation’s most promising future leaders to teach, requires a two-year commitment to teach, Pierce said.
Teach for America South Carolina provides these teachers with ongoing training, coaching, and professional development as they go into some of the state’s most under-resourced school districts.
With the Teach for America program, Pierce said, she has been able to participate in numerous workshops and conferences. During a six-week session, she learned Total Physical Response (TPR), which she uses when teaching social studies. She said it was especially helpful for one of her students who was from another country and spoke little or no English.
Pierce said TPR is based on three points: if you get lost, make an X; 100% participation; and all eyes on me (teacher) when teaching.
Pierce said her mission is to not only teach the child the subjects but how to go out into society as a productive citizen.
“This is really my calling,” Pierce said. “I use music, meditation, mindfulness and conflict resolution in the classroom.”
“We meditate every morning,” she said.
Pierce said her students are encouraged to rate themselves from 1 to 10 in the morning as to how they are feeling that day.
“They don’t have to do it,” she said. “And some were hesitant at first.”
Pierce said the students had to learn to trust each other first before exposing their feelings. She said now the student will talk about why one feels like a five and another person a one. These feelings may be based on something like not having time to eat breakfast that morning or having a fight with a sibling. They connect with one another and support each other, she said.
Pierce also uses a “peace table” for conflict resolution. She said that had to be suspended because of COVID, but it has worked well. A student can bring another student to the table to work out a problem between them. In the beginning, Pierce said, the students didn’t want to go to the table, but by the end of her first year, she said, that changed. She said you can’t walk away from conflict. Students need to learn to resolve their problems with each other.
She encourages her students to speak up in class, to ask questions. Learning is collaboration between student and teacher, Pierce said. She said every morning she poses a question to them to try to solve. She said they debate and talk it out to come up with a solution to the problem she has presented to them.
“I am not a book teacher,” Pierce said. “ELA and math are my strongest areas.”
Pierce said she goes the extra mile to make sure her students are good people. She said many of her pupils are at-risk students. She said their living conditions are not ideal.
“It hurts my heart,” she said, “I believe all my students are college bound. My standards and expectations are high for all of them. I don’t view them as at-risk students. These students have a hold on my heart. I really want to be a part of their lives. … I want to continue to be there for them.”
Pierce is the youngest of four children. Her mother, Shari, is a high school teacher and her father, Gary, a preacher.
Gariel graduated summa cum laude from Blackburn College in Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She will finish her master’s in education from Francis Marion University this spring.
“She is a real go-getter, loves the Lord and is just a very sweet person,” said her mother, who teaches special education in Illinois. Even though she has taught for more than 30 years, Shari says she continues to learn from her daughter.
“I hope it was me who inspired her,” Shari said. “She is licensed to teach in two states — South Carolina and Illinois — and that is not easy.”
“Sometimes I wish she would slow down,” Shari said. “She is a very hard worker and deserves the recognition that she receives. I wish I could say she is like me, but she is smarter than I am. She blows me away. You can’t help but love her.”
Shari said hers is a “service-oriented” family. She said one of her children is a nurse, one a chemist and the other is going to be an architect. She said they all give back and want to help others.
Happy Girl Collection
In addition to being a teacher, Pierce is a jewelry maker. She has her own line of jewelry, Happy Girl Collection, which she sells at the City Center Farmer’s Market in Florence on Saturdays.
Her compassion for people carries over to her line of jewelry. Pierce said it began in high school.
In her senior year, Pierce said, she’d get up at 6 a.m. to participate in a group that taught its members how to start a business. She said those chosen to participate were provided mentors. Her mentor was in the hospitality industry and worked with Pierce on discovering what she was interested in and what type of business she would like to create.
Pierce said each student was given $800 for startup money. Pierce decided on making one-of-a-kind beaded necklaces. Because she was a happy person, her mentor suggested the Happy Girl Collection. The name fit, Pierce said.
Pierce said students in the high school group went to trade shows to sell their products. She said hers always sold.
Pierce said one thing the experience taught her was that whatever you create, it must be different.
“I am a very sentimental person,” Pierce said. “I like to uplift people.”
So with each piece of jewelry created, Pierce decided to include a handwritten note about her mood when creating it, why she made it, to whom it was dedicated, a suggestion of what to wear it with and the name of the piece. It was an uplifting message. She continues to include her notes with each piece of jewelry sold.
“My jewelry is one-of-a-kind, like every girl is unique,” Pierce said. “I don’t repeat any design, and I don’t make anything I wouldn’t wear.”
Pierce said she had to take a break from the jewelry-making business while in college. Playing basketball, tennis and working as a librarian didn’t leave her much time for jewelry making.
Pierce started making her beaded jewelry again when she came to South Carolina, and sells it in Florence, where she lives. She mostly makes earrings.
“Earrings take less time to make,” she said.
Pierce sells them for $5 a pair and always includes a handwritten note.
“It is a great release from the stress of teaching; it’s very relaxing,” she said.
Pierce said it is an awesome feeling seeing people wearing her jewelry at church and around town.
Pierce said she has a blog but is considering creating a website this summer for Happy Girl Collection. And a return to teaching at the end of her two-year commitment is also on the horizon.