COLUMBIA, S.C. — Richland School District Two has announced five finalists for 2023-2024 District Teacher of the Year. The finalists and their schools are Will Epps, Blythewood High School; Stacey Higgins, Forest Lake Elementary NASA Explorer School; Kathia Rivera de Guzman, Pontiac Elementary School; Ahmad Stephens, Ridge View High School; and Jennifer Tinneny, Westwood High School.
“These are phenomenal educators who are making the magic happen in their classrooms each and every day. These five teachers are demonstrating the Richland Two Core Values of Belonging, Learning, Continuous Improvement, and Joy in all that they do. It is my honor to work alongside them as they continue to make a positive impact on the lives of students in this school district,” said Richland School District Two Superintendent Dr. Kim Moore.
Will Epps is a Science teacher at Blythewood High School. He holds two degrees from The Citadel, a Bachelor of Arts in teaching specialization in chemistry and comprehensive board field Science, and a Master of Education in interdisciplinary STEM education. Epps designed the Bengal Biodiesel program, an industrial experience in which students transform used cooking oil into biodiesel, a renewable alternative to diesel fuel. Epps says, “I believe teachers should always look for ways to serve our community. My Chemistry 2 program is built on serving the community and exposing students to real-life personal and professional opportunities. Through intentional community and industry partnerships, I help students see the impact we can have when education transcends the classroom.” For nearly 10 years, Epps has also been a seasonal employee in industrial chemistry labs and brings a wealth of experience and expertise into the classroom.
Stacey Higgins is a fourth-grade English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at Forest Lake Elementary NASA Explorer School. She is National Board Certified. Higgins was also awarded Teacher of the Year honors in her previous school district at Horrell Hill Elementary School (2010) in Richland School District One. Higgins says teaching has always been her calling. “I know I was made for children, to be a nurturer, a role model, and a teacher.” At Forest Lake, Higgins is the student council advisor, Summer Opportunities for Academic Readiness Program teacher, and summer reading camp teacher. Higgins holds a Bachelor of Science in elementary education from South Carolina State University. She began her teaching career in 2001 at Elloree Elementary in Orangeburg Consolidated School District Three.
Kathia Rivera de Guzman is a kindergarten teacher at Pontiac Elementary School. Her educational career began in 2017 as a classroom aide at Camden Elementary School in Kershaw County School District. In May 2020, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in early childhood education from the University of South Carolina. In her inaugural year of teaching, Richland School District Two recognized her as a 2020-2021 Rookie Teacher of the Year. Growing up in the Caribbean, Rivera de Guzman learned how to overcome hardships and how to let her dreams evolve with hard work. She is committed to finding ways to create spaces that are more inclusive for all students and families. She has been instrumental in breaking language barriers at her school. She organized the school’s first Multilingual Family Night. Rivera de Guzman serves as the team leader for her grade at Pontiac Elementary and also effectively coaches new teachers during their internship with the University of South Carolina (USC). She is a teacher leader in Carolina TIP which is a program at USC that supports new education graduates for the purpose of increasing the teacher retention rate.
Ahmad Stephens is the Director of School Counseling at Ridge View High School. Stephens always knew he wanted to work with students in some capacity. Through his daily interactions as a sixth-grade teacher at Dorchester County School District Four, he discovered the importance of emotional well-being and its impact on students’ learning and living. That discovery led him to South Carolina State University where he earned a Master of Education degree in counselor education. Stephens also holds a Bachelor of Science in elementary education from SC State University. Stephens understands that “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Because of that, he works hard to ensure his students see him from a different perspective from the school counselor only, but instead, as an advocate and motivator, helping students reach their goals.
Jennifer Tinneny teaches English at Westwood High School. Tinneny began teaching at Westwood when the school opened in 2012. She works with the Teacher Cadet program and teaches in the Scholars of Academic Rigor (SOAR) Honors Academy. She began teaching in 1990 at Lugoff-Elgin High School in Kershaw County. She has also been a teacher at Ridge View High School where she taught in the Scholars Academy for Business and Law Magnet program and the Institute of BioHealth Sciences Magnet program. Tinneny says her most significant accomplishments and contributions in education are all of her students who have become successful adults. Many of her students are first-generation college students, breaking glass ceilings as they move forward. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Columbia College and an Interdisciplinary Master of Arts in English with a Writing Emphasis from the University of South Carolina.
These finalists received surprise visits from Superintendent Moore, their principals, and other administrators who announced they were in the top five competing for the Richland Two District Teacher of the Year.