Riley Earnest named DCS Teacher of the Year

DeSoto Central Elementary School Teacher of the Year Riley Earnest

Photo: DeSoto County Teacher of the Year Riley Earnest welcomes students to her school, DeSoto Central Elementary School in Southaven. (Bob Bakken/desotocountynews.com) 

Expect the unexpected when you enter the classroom of this year’s DeSoto County School District Teacher of the Year, Riley Earnest. 

The fifth-grade science and social studies teacher at DeSoto Central Elementary School may conjure up a lesson plan that may make her appear to have just arrived from Hogwarts with Harry Potter. Her classroom another day may be decked out to have the appearance of outer space. 

Her students seldom know exactly who they will find when they come to class that day. 

“I may tell them they will have a substitute the next day and then I will come dressed as an astronomer, or some kind of scientist, just to get the shock value and then they’ll laugh,” Earnest said. “I try to think of something that will completely knock them off guard. I like them being up, I like them moving, anything I can do to make them feel like they want to be learning and to question things.”  

That type of approach connects Earnest’s students to the study material and to many of her passions: science or history, whatever is being taught that day; art and creativity, and even costuming. 

Earnest was selected as Teacher of the Year among the several instructors each of the DCS schools named as their individual Teacher of the Year.  She has definitely made an impact in just her third year in the district and sixth year overall in education.  

Riley graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in elementary education in 2014 and taught in schools at Tuscaloosa for three years, eventually returning to DeSoto County to teach. 

A special part of her school day is every day she enters what was previously her mother’s classroom. It is now her classroom and that means a lot to Earnest.   

“I would come up when I was in college and help her, because our breaks would work out where she would still be in school and I’d be out,” Earnest said. “I’d spend so many afternoons helping her in here and she’d let me read to her classes. When I came home from Alabama, we got to teach one year together at the same grade level.”

Now being in the same classroom where her mother taught is a surreal, sometimes emotional moment for Earnest.  

“This classroom has so many memories for me,” she said. “It could not have been a bigger gift than to take over her classroom.”

The “science nerd” of her hall at DeSoto Central Elementary originally had marine biology on her mind when she entered college. But Earnest learned that her joy came in teaching kids, so after several changes in majors, she settled on elementary education.

Her science curriculum covers “a little bit of all of the big parts of science,” Earnest said.  

On the social studies side, Earnest pulls from her background of several impactful history teachers in her life and her father’s love of history that instilled her to love history, as well.  

She hopes her students will learn from the past for a better future. 

“I find myself very passionate about helping students understand things that have happened before, so we can learn from them and do better tomorrow,” Earnest said. “Something may have happened in 1627, but what does that mean for a 10-year-old living today in 2023?”

Earnest’s social studies curriculum ranges from colonization to the Civil War, but she added events like the recent Pearl Harbor Day observance on Dec. 7 will attract a special emphasis for that day.  

The costumes come out for history, as well, as Earnest may greet the students dressed as Benjamin Franklin, for instance.

Earnest sees herself as part of a team, when talking about her fellow instructors and staff at DeSoto Central Elementary, adding that she is always ready and willing to help where she can. 

“I am passionate about my job and I’m passionate about helping,” she said. “What we’re doing here is so important, especially when you’re trying to help students learn something and navigate a very tough world, giving them tools and things to look back on.” 

Teachers, like Earnest, hope that what is taught has a lifetime impact on the youngsters that enter the classroom. 

“I hope all of my students know how much I believe in them and how much I think they are great,” Earnest said. “This is a very hard job, a lot of the time, but I rest easy at night knowing that these kids can be the best versions of themselves.”

As district Teacher of the Year, Earnest will now be considered for the statewide Teacher of the Year Award.