Some might say that Kellie Blair Hardt has succeeded despite her upbringing. She had an absent mother and an alcoholic father, and struggled with homelessness, bullying, and expulsion from school.
But Hardt says those experiences actually helped shape her into a nationally recognized teacher because she intimately understands the challenges that many of her students and their parents face every day.
The innovative science teacher in northern Virginia was recently featured in KET’s Dropping Back In series. Hardt talked about her life on Connections with Renee Shaw.
’I Know I Can Be Regular‘
Hardt describes her early years as living in “survival mode.”
Her mother abandoned her and her twin brother when they were two years old. The children and their alcoholic father were often homeless and depended on government assistance or food pantries for their meals. Hardt says her first classroom memories weren’t about reading or writing, but of fearing her classmates would discover that the family slept on park benches near the school.
As the years progressed, Hardt was bullied and soon became a bully herself. She was suspended and eventually expelled because she was considered a danger to the school.
“I remember feeling [like] ‘This is not me,’ but I had no way to express it, and if I could, would anybody believe it?” Hardt says. “There were so many times I just wanted to say… I know I can be regular.”
She says it soon became easier to embrace the label of juvenile delinquent rather than try to be anything different. When a stint in an alternative school also ended in an expulsion, Hardt wound up in a federal Job Corps training program.
The Path to Academic Success
Hardt says the program at Job Corps was a godsend. The campus provided meals and shelter, freeing her from worrying about her day-to-day survival. And the GED program she entered revealed a talent for writing.
“That was first time where I felt important,” Hardt says. “For the first time, a teacher was telling me that I had something special going on, and I latched on to that.”
Finally on a path to academic success, Hardt completed her GED, attended community college, got a scholarship to Virginia Tech, and eventually earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She plans to complete a Ph.D. in higher education next year.
Connecting with Heads and Hearts
The woman who overcame her own educational challenges is now an innovative math and science teacher for kids who learn differently. In addition to receiving other accolades, Hardt was named one of the National Education Association’s teachers of the year in 2013. She attributes some of her success to telling her students about the challenges she faced growing up.
“They had no idea that, yes, I know what it’s like to be hungry. Yes, I know what it’s like to have an alcoholic parent,” Hardt recalls. “I just blurted it all out standing in front of that class for the first time and you could see their mouths hitting the floor. My students were amazed at the fact that I had come from that background to where I am.”
Hardt says that candor builds a connection with her classes. She encourages teachers she advises to open up to their own lives as a way to foster deeper bonds with their students. Hardt adds that such honesty also works with parents who may be embarrassed that they were school dropouts or only have their GEDs.
“When you have a genuine connection… with parents, you get a sense of empowerment,” Hardt explains, “because when you have parents, and a community, and a student on your side, teaching is a breeze.”
Paying Forward the Blessings
But even with all her success, Hardt admits that she can still fall victim to old ways of thinking. About two years ago, she became overwhelmed with being a mother, a teacher, and a doctoral student. She doubted herself and her accomplishments, and fell into a deep depression. Hardt says she even thought that the people who once labeled her a juvenile delinquent were right and that the life she was living now was a fake.
“It wasn’t until I crashed that I realized what unconditional love is, and I get that from my husband and family,” Hardt says.
Now Hardt says she’s no longer ashamed to tell people about her background or the mistakes she’s made in her life. Hardt says her family helped her understand how she is paying forward the blessings she’s received. In fact, Hardt’s inspirational story has influenced her eight-year old daughter, who already says she wants to be a science teacher just like her mother.
“Though I’ve made some mistakes and I’m going to make some more, I have to dust off and keep going,” Hardt says.