In a day and age when the spoken word is often abrasive and offensive, you can always count on Olivia Kiser to make a joyful noise.
“I love my job and I am so passionate about music and my kids,” she says. “My first job for these students is to love them. The kids do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care, so I am all about building positive relationships.”
The Andrew Lewis Middle School Choir Director is the Salem School Division’s Teacher of the Year for 2020. It is a humbling honor she never expected, yet deeply cherishes.
“When I knew that I wanted to become a teacher, teaching in Salem was the dream for me, and to have that dream come true was so special,” says Kiser. “The teachers at Andrew Lewis are so phenomenal, I was shocked when they told me that I had received this honor. My students were clapping and singing, and I was crying like a baby because it was such a special moment.”
Kiser joined the Salem School Division in the fall of 2017 after spending the first eight years of her teaching career as a music instructor in Carroll and Pulaski counties. The Andrew Lewis choir had less than 50 students enrolled when she arrived. Now, that number is fast approaching 100.
“Mrs. Kiser has a contagious smile that she shares with anyone and everyone,” says Jamie Garst, Andrew Lewis Principal. “She not only teaches kids about music, but she creates lifelong music lovers. She has been a major contributor to the positive culture and climate that we are trying to create here at Andrew Lewis.”
Kiser grew up in Elliston and earned her bachelor’s degree in music education from Radford University and her master’s in curriculum and instruction from Virginia Tech. Besides teaching at the middle school, she is also a piano instructor.
“My family wasn’t very musical, but my twin sister and I just worked very hard,” says Kiser. “We started taking piano lessons when we were five and we were part of our church choir. I later took voice lessons and joined the Roanoke Valley Children’s Choir.”
While she was a member of that choir, Kiser found not only her professional calling, but also found herself.
“I loved music and I loved kids, so teaching music was the perfect match,” she says. “I also truly found my voice at this time, because I was very shy. Choir gave me my true voice and to this day some of my fondest memories are from that time, and I try to give that back to my students.”
Kiser’s approach to teaching and life also were greatly shaped from 2013-2016 when she spent time during each of those four summers on mission trips to Zimbabwe, Africa.
“My time in Africa really opened my eyes to the struggles of those in third world countries,” she says. “It has also made me so thankful and appreciative of all the opportunities that we have here in America.”
Kiser uses those experiences and her endless enthusiasm and bubbly personality to help motivate her students and teach them life lessons along the way.
“I have a very eclectic group of students that makes up one big family,” she says. “Just like a basketball team, we have to work together. After we perform together, they see that sticking together and working hard can produce an amazing product. Middle schoolers often want instant gratification, so it is rewarding to hear them talk about how their hard work paid off.”
Kiser also has a unique musical connection to another teacher in the school division. Her twin sister, Maria Eakin, is the music teacher at G.W. Carver and West Salem Elementary Schools. Growing up, Olivia would sing while her sister played piano.
“She’s very happy for me,” says Kiser. “As teachers, we go home daily thinking and reflecting on what we can do better for our students.”
Kiser and her husband, Mike, reside in Salem with their two dachshunds that are named after the Star Wars characters, Boba and Yoda.
The Salem School Board will honor all six teachers of the year during a special reception on March 31. The other Teachers of the Year representing the five remaining Salem schools are:
Gretchen Bower / English Learner Teacher / East Salem Elementary
Terri Vangelos / School Librarian / G.W. Carver Elementary
Susan Gardner / Spanish Teacher / Salem High School
Kaitlin Webb / Special Education Teacher / South Salem Elementary
Christine Robertson / First Grade Teacher / West Salem Elementary