Dr. Sue Rex: Teacher Extraordinaire
August 4, 2023
Sue Rex never wanted to be anything but a teacher.
From her childhood days in Pennsylvania instructing her “classroom” of dolls to her decades as a special education teacher and professor of education at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, teaching has been her life’s work.
So when Dr. Rex, a Founder of SC WIL, a member of the Winthrop Board of Trustees from 2005 to 2017, and a current member of the Winthrop Foundation Board, was asked five years ago to lend her expertise to an intriguing idea of building a “teacher village” in rural Fairfield County, she said yes. It was an “outside-the-box” project initiated by Dr. J.R. Green, superintendent of the Fairfield County School District, that would creatively tackle the crisis of recruiting good teachers to rural districts — starting with his own — and retaining them, too.
To start, the Fairfield County School District Education Foundation, a nonprofit corporation, was established to support the “teacher village” mission. Then Dr. Green asked Sue Rex, who has lived in Fairfield County since her marriage to former SC Superintendent of Education Jim Rex nearly 30 years ago, to become a member of the Foundation.
“I went to the first Foundation meeting, and all of a sudden, I was elected chair,” she says.
If all goes as planned, the first 16 single-family homes in the Fairfield Teacher Village (formally known as “The Village in Winnsboro: A Community of Fairfield County Educators”) will be available for teachers to rent in the summer of 2024. The construction of four additional homes and a clubhouse will be Phase 2.
The teacher village will be the first of its kind in South Carolina.
Shepherding the mission has been “a half-time job with no pay,” jokes Dr. Rex, but she has soldiered on for half a decade, despite facing issues with funding, contractors, city and county permitting, and a host of other delays that included the Covid pandemic. “It’s been one thing after another,” she says.
Juggling partnerships with legislators, city and county governments, industry, banks, nonprofits, and the school district has been “like a big jigsaw puzzle,” adds Dr. Rex.
Why take on such a monumental task? “Because I think this can be a national model. We can show other rural counties the steps they need to take and tell them, ‘This is how it happened in Winnsboro, and it can happen in your county, too.’”
She applauds the Fairfield County School District (which donated 22 acres of land for the homes), Dominion Energy, the United Way, the Midlands Housing Trust Fund, and First Community Bank for their financial support. Wade McGuinn in Columbia is the project’s “wonderful builder.” CEC in Columbia has provided engineering expertise, and Upland Construction of Sumter is the infrastructure purveyor. The University of South Carolina’s College of Education has expressed interest in participating by perhaps renting one of the homes.
What will make the teacher village so special, Dr. Rex says, is that it will be a locus of support for teachers, a caring community where teachers can listen to each other and help each other. This may ameliorate a part of the current crisis in education: 50 percent of new teachers drop out of the profession within five years because of poor pay and working conditions, student behavior, low morale, inadequate professional and emotional support, and other factors.
“Teaching is a very complicated profession,” she explains. “It’s not just teaching a subject, but also working as a team with other teachers, with parents, with the psychological-social needs of kids. Teachers need support, and this village can provide that.
“This just has to succeed.”
The groundbreaking ceremony for the teacher village was held on August 3, 2023. Sue Rex was front and center.
Jan Collins is a Columbia, South Carolina-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).