Amber Sergent, a Woodford County High School social studies teacher, was named Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year for 2023. Sergent received her doctorate in history from the University of Kentucky in 2012. In an interview with UK undergraduate Grace Yi, she discusses what led her to her degree at UK, her rural upbringing, and her teaching philosophy.
Yi: How did you get into history?
Sergent: I have a background in animal science. I was here at UK going into AG education, and I took a History of Kentucky class and loved it. For whatever reason, I decided to transfer during my undergrad years to Morehead State. I earned my history and government degrees there with a minor in animal science. I was heading to the Peace Corps; I got my placement and everything, but instead, I opted to go for my master’s in history because history has always come easy to me. It just clicks. I had no plans on teaching high school at this point. I was able to get into the master’s-Ph.D. program here at UK and was given a TA position the spring semester of my first year here in the master’s program, and I loved it. I was fortunate to work with Dr. Mark Summers, who sets the bar for lectures. Also, Dr. Kathi Kern was a fabulous survey-level and graduate-level professor from the University of Kentucky. I also taught History 107 with Dr. Eric Christensen. So, I had TA roles all through my master’s and Ph.D.
Yi: How did you move into high school teaching?
Sergent: After I finished my doctorate, I chose a path that allowed me to stay home with my children while they were little. I was an associate producer on a KET film project, I worked for Louie B. Nunn Oral History Center as a transcriber and did oral history interviews for them, and I adjunct a little bit for Northern Kentucky University. NKU asked me to go into the high school to teach for them in their dual credit program. I thought, “I like this. This is fun.” At that time, the state of Kentucky didn't honor a Ph.D. to teach high school, so I went for a master’s in secondary education at Morehead State. I was able to do it in a year while teaching full-time.
Yi: What drew you to UK?
Sergent: The very first impression I had from the office administrator. Her name was Tina Hagee, and she had the kindest heart and was so welcoming. Every person who's tied to an academic department matters. I felt comfortable coming up here and submitting my application. Tina made you feel at home. I am from rural Kentucky, a fourth-generation tobacco farmer, and a first-generation college student. I met the Rockstar team of Eric Christensen, Ron Eller, Tracy Campbell, Karen Petrone, Shearer Davis Bowman, and Karl Raitz in the Geography Department. They became my doctoral committee. You find teachers and professors who speak to you about the past in a way that just makes sense.
Yi: You are a fourth-generation tobacco farmer. What was your childhood like, and was there anything that spurred you towards your path?
Sergent: I am proud because I didn't know how poor we were. That speaks to my parents. My summers were spent in the tobacco fields. It’s a profession that used to be common, but it has shifted in Kentucky since 1996 and the tobacco buyout bill. Tobacco farming is a 13-month crop, so while you're wrapping up one, you're working on another. We were on a small tobacco farm in Northern Kentucky in the foothills of the Licking Valley region. There's a huge emphasis on heritage, family ties, and ties to the land. I paid for my undergrad by working in the tobacco fields.
Yi: What encouraged you to go into higher education?
Sergent: The thing about academia is it's never going to be one person. It's going to be an amalgamation of different teachers in your life. For me, my road to history began in eighth grade with a teacher by the name of Pam Harper, who set me on that path of why it comes easy for me and just because it comes easy, then it's up to you to go deeper and dive more into it. So eighth-grade social studies was fun, but it was challenging because Pam saw that I had a talent for it, and she wasn't OK with 100%; you're going to do more, and it's going to be let's go to the next level and the next level. Then, in college at Morehead State, I had a similar experience with Yvonne Baldwin. What you end up doing as a teacher in your own classroom, whether you're in high school or college teaching as a tenure track professor, is you take ideas that fit with you and your style. What I took from Pam Harper was identifying and seeing kids. Yvonne Baldwin taught me to see the whole student at the University as a human, not just the name on a roster.
Yi: How did UK faculty members help you?
Sergent: Karen Petrone modeled for me in many ways that we can be professional, caring, nurturing, and compassionate. There was a group of us who were studying for our oral exams, which are brutal, and we noticed that we were shaky on these cornerstones of historiography and world history in American history. She's like, “Well, let's just have a small seminar together.” So she, on her own, put this together, and we met once a week for several weeks and just talked through some readings. That kind of care, to see and identify that these kids are going to make it to the next level, and I'm going to meet them where they're at because they have this big test essentially coming up, that's Karen Petrone. Eric Christensen opened up a whole new world for me in terms of integrating science and the history of America and understanding the cultural, social, and political impact of American history. Same for Tracy Campbell with political history —taking people and presidents off pedestals and understanding the whole concept. And Ron Eller, who was such a compassionate, empathetic person — I think you would be hard-pressed to find another professor that came through here in the past 30 years who had more graduate students. We were all attracted to knowing that we would be seen and heard. He honored our backgrounds; he understood I came from a rural background, though he didn't lower the expectations.
Yi: You specialize in American history, and especially in the South. Is that what you teach in your classrooms?
Sergent: I've taught Western European surveys, American history (both halves), History of Kentucky, general U.S. history, civics, freshman survey social studies, and economics. You have to be open. I will tell you that teaching high school juniors and seniors has made me a better historian. I'm more on top of the dates, names, and facts because you have the standards you must meet. In so many ways, high school teaching has not just made me a better historian, but I would argue a better human because I get to work with 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds.
Yi: What has been your favorite thing to teach so far?
Sergent: I love 20th-century American history, and I also love the history of Kentucky. That's a fun class. It's seniors-only, and you're getting students who have just taken American history, and you're able to show that it's not just state history, it's not just Daniel Boone, it is so complex, and it's reflective. I love the Jesse Stewart quote, "If America is a body, Kentucky is its heart," and being able to show that local and state history matters.
Yi: You mentioned that you loved teaching juniors and seniors. Which grade would you say is your favorite to teach?
Sergent: They're both different, even though a year separates them. So, I don't really have a favorite. I'm much better as a junior/senior teacher than a freshman teacher. I'm a little stern with freshmen coming out of 8th grade. Juniors and seniors are my niche just because it's easy to teach them. To me, all they want is to be seen and heard as a young adult, and when you meet them that way, they will respond as a young adult.
Yi: What’s your approach to teaching?
Sergent: One of the things that I try to bring to my classroom is that organization that gives students structure. I'm a very structured person. My calendar is color-coded based on energy levels. It’s a really excellent science: I started it a couple of years ago, and it's fabulous. Things that will bring me complete and total joy have one color. Things that are going to be some draining and some joy have this color. My boys and their activities have one. Things that will drain the tar out of me have a different color. If I look at my week and I see mostly draining, I make certain I put a different color in there; my husband and I go and grab dinner, or I'm going to plan time to go out with a girlfriend or do nothing because I know I'll need it.
Yi: Do you also sponsor extracurriculars at school?
Sergent: I do. I run our after-school tutoring service two days a week. I'm in charge of all the paperwork, structure, and discipline, and I make certain it flows, which includes peer mentors who come in and help tutor. I also run our summer school credit recovery program and am the academic coach for our football team. I also work with our basketball team and some with our soccer team, but my main role is with the football team.
Yi: What do you do as their academic coach?
Sergent: We have team goals and individual goals. For the past two years, our football team has run an average of 3.0 GPA. This year, it'll be a 3.2 team. That also includes behavior, not just academics. Performance is behavior. We're all about defying stereotypes and encouraging codes of power, as many of the football players are. I am a white, middle-class, middle-aged woman. A lot of my students who are football players are students of color, so meeting them where they're at, honoring, and empowering their journeys matters a lot. The world is hard enough as it is, and the stereotypes that they carry. So, we focus a lot on codes of power.
Q: You've received many accolades, including the 2023 Best Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year. What would you say is your proudest achievement?
Sergent: It's so much fun working with these young adults and seeing them far beyond the classroom. The monthly updates I get from when they're on campuses all across the country or even in the backyard when I see them in Kroger. When I see them out like that, and they remember you, and you definitely remember them, that's the fun part of this job. It's just incredibly rewarding. There's no piece of paper that will ever be equivalent to a connection with another human being and where you're encouraging them, empowering them to see a different future.