Music and drama are educational mainstays in this teacher's first-grade classroom.

Jim Ledford
Elementary School Winner
Alcott Elementary School, Westerville City School District 

Step into first-grade teacher Jim Ledford’s class at Alcott Elementary School and you’re likely to learn a lesson from a puppet or hear students singing songs from A Smile is Contagious, a CD the class produced earlier this year.

Ledford, 56, takes the standard curriculum up a notch, teaching his students through music and drama. The popular teacher, songwriter and guitar instructor from Westerville was the elementary school winner in the Columbus Parent/ThisWeek Community News 2019 Teachers of the Year awards.

“I’ve taught first grade my whole career,” Ledford says. “I am certified to teach first through eighth grade, but got my first job teaching first grade and have been here ever since.”

He’s been at Alcott since it opened 17 years ago and previously taught for 13 years at Westerville’s Hawthorne Elementary School. Ledford spent the first two years of his career in his hometown of Cleveland. “I feel like first grade is one of the most important grades in a child’s life,” he says. “They are learning so many important academic concepts that are crucial to success in these content areas as they get older, as well as social/character skills important in becoming good students. As a teacher, you can set a child up for success academically, socially and in so many other ways.”

Ledford graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Mount Vernon Nazarene University in 1986 and earned a master’s degree in children’s literature from Ohio State University in 1995. “I got into teaching because my mom was a kindergarten teacher and I loved going into her classroom to visit,” Ledford says. “I actually started out as a secondary education English major. I wanted to teach English and coach basketball. After being put in an elementary field experience my first year of college and really loving it, I changed my major to elementary ed.”

Alcott Principal Earl Rahm says Ledford is one of the most creative teachers he has worked with, even dressing up on occasion to take on the role of a special “guest.” “Not only does he incorporate music within his lessons, but he uses puppets and brings in ‘guest’ teachers,” Rahm says. “Mr. Ledford is always thinking of new ways to teach a lesson and provide learning opportunities that children will not forget.”

Fellow first-grade teacher Marty Somerfeldt has taught with Ledford since Alcott opened and has known him for more than 25 years. “Jim’s style is to use his unique talents to make learning engaging and fun,” Somerfeldt says. “His use of music, songs and puppets are pretty well known, but he is also a patient and perceptive teacher when dealing with the social and emotional needs of the young children in his class.”

Alcott parent Jieney Sieck says her daughter Josephine adored being in Ledford’s class this year. “I was PTA president at Alcott a few years back, and I have known ‘Mr. L’ for years,” she says. “He is such an exceptional educator. Anyone who spends a few minutes in his classroom will immediately understand why.” 

For this year’s Teachers of the Year awards (the sixth year for the project), readers nominated educators from school districts all over Central Ohio. Nominations were taken online Jan. 2-30. The editorial staffs from Columbus Parent and ThisWeek reviewed all of the submissions, did some independent research and chose 15 finalists, who were voted on by the public March 7-27. Three winners were chosen: one each at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

The Westerville Education Foundation nominated Ledford, writing that his positive nature, words of affirmation and recognition of students who do the right thing help reinforce and encourage positive behavior. “In addition to holding events such as the Christmas concert and CD release party to grow each child’s performance skills, he arranges for his students to ‘open’ a Mexican restaurant in which each child plays a crucial role in running the business,” the nomination said.

Ledford was honored at an April 24 assembly attended by Superintendent John Kellogg and Barbara Wallace, the district’s executive director of elementary academic affairs. Rahm staged a gathering to congratulate second-graders on completing state testing and asked Ledford and his students to perform a song to kick off the event. “The students were so excited to be a part of the award, and they felt proud of me and themselves,” Ledford says.

Ledford and his wife, Shelli, have two children: Zach, who’s graduating this year with a degree in education from OSU, and Kayla, who is married and just had a baby, Violet.

Marla K. Kuhlman is a reporter for ThisWeek Community News.