Henrico’s Top Teachers – Aparna Harger

Aparna Harger discovered her love for teaching at the age of 25 in a tiny French town, thousands of miles from her home, in a place where she often was unable to communicate the most basic of questions.

It wasn't quite where she might have expected to end up.

On a law school track in college at Wake Forest University, and feeling the need to obtain a high-paying job, there was not much room in her mind to entertain thoughts of teaching. But once she worked in the legal field for awhile, she realized something just wasn't right.

So she applied for a position through the French government to teach English there and was accepted. The program sent her to the small countryside town of Moulins, where almost no one spoke English – except for Harger, who spoke only a bit of French.

"I kind of felt like a zoo animal everywhere I went," she recalled of the town, in which most people knew each other – and most couldn't fathom why an American would have ventured there. "But it was the best thing for me, because it had been so long since French was a part of my life. It was such a tight-knit community. In a short time, I really got very attached."

Harger returned from the year-long stint determined to teach French – something she's now done for the past five years at Fairfield Middle School. There, she's left an impressive stamp on the program – and helped make the language cool.

Enrollment in French has tripled since she arrived, and nearly 70 students are members of the French Club, which meets monthly.

"Kids are drawn to it because it has a lot to do with food," Harger said. But they stay because they have fun, and because Harger helps them feel appreciated.

"She has helped me to understand that even if I have had the worst day ever, there is still a reason to smile," one student wrote. "She is like your adult best friend."

"She not only has an educational connection, but she has a personal connection with most of her students and that truly helps students feel comfortable in school," wrote another. "She also tries her hardest to make sure that all her students feel welcomed and understand what she is teaching us. She makes an effort to get to know us and get to know our personal learning methods."

Most students at the school haven't had much cultural diversity, Harger said, so teaching about far-away nations can be challenging.

"Most of my students have never left their neighborhood, much less the state or their country," she said. "The idea of France or Canada or Africa. . . seems like this far-away fictional place that they'll never really experience or never know. A lot of them are really incredulous about how things could be difficult anywhere else. I try to bring in my personal experience to help bridge that gap, that it is real life."

Harger finds that involving French music engages her students, who often end up memorizing and singing along with the songs.

Walk the Fairfield campus, and it's not unusual to see students wearing their French Club t-shirts.

"It's cool to see them take such interest and pride in their own little thing here," Harger said, adding that she can't picture herself anywhere else.

"I'll be here awhile."
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