When a roof collapse at Jefferson County High School in July 2013 destroyed the drama department, Billie Yardley (BS ’77, MS ’82) was determined to continue teaching her students about using their creativity. Her challenge then became how to tap into her own.
Yardley, who has spent the majority of her thirty-six-year career as a drama teacher in Jefferson County, Tennessee, suddenly had her collection of scripts and lights, the audio system and a vast number of vintage costumes—including many pieces she made herself—completely destroyed.
“I didn’t even have a pencil or a pair of scissors,” she says.
That’s when her co-workers pitched in to help. “There are well over 100 teachers at the school, and I don’t think there’s one of them that hasn’t helped me in some way,” she says.
Drawing on their support, Yardley developed a way of teaching as a nomad. Her classes met in the band room or the chorus room when they weren’t in use for those classes. She does her planning period in the math department. And when it was time for her drama students to do their Christmas Originals show, the chorus teacher gave them performance space.
“Everyone has adopted me,” she says.
But she still faced the challenge of all the supplies the roof collapse destroyed.
That’s when a drama student named Katie Inman heard about the Today show’s national Teacher of the Year contest, with $10,000 worth of school supplies going to the winner.
After the Inman family nominated her, Yardley needed to submit a collection of work from the school. Again, co-workers and administrators came to her aid, rummaging through their collections and supplying all the requirements since her own materials wound up in demolition dumpsters.
When Yardley appeared on the Today show live in the studio in November 2013, she learned that she had received the most votes in the online contest. Yardley became the Today show Teacher of the Year just four months after losing her classroom.
“I am flabbergasted,” she told cohosts Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford.
However, her legions of supporters weren’t surprised at all.
During her teaching career, all spent at Jefferson County High, Yardley has supported student outreach and creativity through a host of extracurricular activities. Her students perform shows throughout the county and take part in “Night of the Patriots,” a veterans show that draws crowds in the thousands. She also has helped organize numerous proms and formals for the students. Yardley is even the cheerleading coach.
She shares this advice for UT students who are preparing to go into teaching: “Be prepared for a lot of long hours. Be prepared to give more of yourself than you have ever given before. Get involved in extracurricular activities. See what works with your students because they’re unique. Everything you need won’t be taught in an education class. Be creative meeting your requirements. Be flexible. I have worked with so many students because of extracurricular activities, whether they were in my classes or not.”
She regularly uses creative examples to teach her students in class. She may choose an event, like the sinking of the Titanic, or a literary work like A Christmas Carol to show them how many ways people have told the story and adapted it to different forms.
It’s fitting for a woman who began her career as a visual arts teacher. “Jefferson County High didn’t have drama back then,” she says. “I guess they thought it was kind of froufrou.” Yardley majored in visual arts at UT but minored in theater—her passion from childhood.
When she had been at Jefferson County for ten years, the principal, James David Swann, asked her to consider teaching drama. A few minutes later, he came back and told her she didn’t need to think about it anymore because she was the new drama teacher.
“He made a difference,” she says.
Yardley has followed suit. Even with all of the destruction her classroom suffered, Yardley’s drama students haven’t missed a single show this year.
Photography by Jennie Andrews