By Jennifer Ginn
Teachers play a hugely important role in shaping the future of the Commonwealth. Even though parents and the public might not always see the early mornings and the late nights teachers put in to ensure their students are getting the education they need to be successful in life, there is one time every year when the best teachers are honored – the Kentucky Teacher of the Year awards program.
Valvoline and the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) co-sponsor the Kentucky Teacher Achievement Awards. Applications for the program are distributed across the state, from which 24 teachers are selected as Valvoline Inc. Teacher Achievement Award winners.
Nine top scorers – each from the elementary, middle and high school levels – are selected, and teams of educators visit their classrooms to view them at work and to conduct personal interviews. From those nine, three are selected as Kentucky Teachers of the Year (TOY). The selection of the overall Kentucky Teacher of the Year is based on the compilation of scores from all phases of the judging.
Kentucky Teacher caught up with 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year Ashley Lamb-Sinclair of North Oldham High School and 2017 Kentucky Teacher of the Year Ron Skillern of Bowling Green High School and asked them what they got out of the program and why other teachers should get involved. Here’s what they had to say:
Why should educators nominate their colleagues for the honor?
Ashley Lamb-Sinclair (ALS): “Because it’s more than an honor. It is a responsibility for the professionals in classrooms across the state to represent our profession because we are the ones implementing policies, curriculum and standards. We are the experts and we need to represent our profession, or others will do it for us.”
Ron Skillern (RS): “Public school teachers, on a daily basis, perform a job which is extraordinarily challenging and yet at the same time very rewarding. For most classroom teachers, the vast majority of the workday is spent engaging students in a variety of ways and, therefore, we truly live in a young person’s world with relatively little contact with other adults. The profession, by nature, does not foster recognition of individual teacher achievement, making it even more imperative that teachers seek out opportunities for leadership such as those provided through the TOY program.
“Valvoline’s corporate sponsorship of the TOY program provides an excellent opportunity for teachers to pursue leadership within the profession. We have many amazing teachers in Kentucky and I wholeheartedly encourage them to take the time to apply and, if selected, become an ambassador for education.”
Why were you interested in becoming Teacher of the Year?
ALS: “Because I wanted to speak on behalf of the work that I was doing and the work that I saw my colleagues doing.”
RS: “To be completely honest, I had to be prodded a bit by several colleagues to submit the TOY application. But once I read the questions and actually started writing, it was a professionally fulfilling experience. As we teach our students, writing requires one to formulate and analyze an issue in greater depth than other modes of communication.
“The questions on the application are very general, affording applicants the leeway to choose issues and accomplishments that they deem significant. For example, one of the topics I chose to explore was teacher recruitment and retention. Enrollment in teacher education programs is down significantly across the nation. This situation demands attention or the profession will no longer attract our best and brightest. The opportunity to be a spokesperson for educators across the state energizes me.”
Ron Skillern, what did you think when you realized you were the 2017 Kentucky Teacher of the Year?
RS: “For almost an hour before the TOY ceremony, all 24 finalists had the opportunity informally to introduce ourselves and to discuss where we were from and what we taught. From these conversations, it was readily obvious that I was among terrific educators who, without exception, were highly deserving of the recognition.
“When Kentucky’s Education Commission Dr. Stephen Pruitt looked back at me and made the final announcement, I was both shocked and humbled to be added to the list of those who have served as TOY. Privately, a bit of panic also set in as to my new responsibilities and what it meant for my students back in Bowling Green. I quickly realized, however, the significance of the honor when, in the time it took to drive back home, my email, text messages and Facebook congratulations were so numerous that I am still today working on properly replying to the correspondence generated by the announcement.”
What do you hope to gain from this experience?
RS: “As a social studies teacher, I look forward to working with members of the KDE and Dr. Pruitt. My first question will be ‘How may I help?’ A new state legislature convenes in January 2017, and I look forward to introducing myself to members and sharing with them a teacher’s perspective on the issues.
“My primary objective is to travel the state and to garner the concerns of other teachers and communicate these to decision makers and those who implement the educational policies of our state. I am the type of person who strives, when possible, to make a difference and I look forward to serving the profession in whatever capacity I am needed.”
Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, what did you do during your year as 2016 Teacher of the Year?
ALS: “I collaborated with other educators on projects and initiatives to elevate teacher voice and leadership within our state.”
How did your perspective on the teaching profession and education change during your time as 2016 Teacher of the Year?
ALS: “I realized more than ever the influence that classroom teachers have on education policy. I think I felt previously like so many things were being done ‘to’ me, but since my experience as KY TOY, I have realized that I actually have the power to make sure that I am a partner in education policy, rather than a victim of it.”
What did you share with teachers from across the state?
ALS: “The message that teachers are leaders and experts, and we should use that influence to better our profession.”
What was the biggest thing you learned during your tenure as Teacher of the Year?
ALS: “Teachers are the most influential component of the education system.”
Ron Skillern and Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, how could becoming TOY benefit other teachers?
RS: “The one thing that energizes me the most is having the opportunity to travel Kentucky while observing, learning and conversing with administrators, teachers, parents and, most of all, students. To have this time to immerse in constructive conversations with passionate, concerned educators all over our Commonwealth is literally a dream come true.
“I perceive the TOY to be an ambassadorship for all areas of Kentucky education, and I am eager to listen to and relay what I learn to those who impact what happens in our schools each day. Already, the number of opportunities to speak and to write about educational issues are abundant, and I look forward to doing so as time permits.
ALS: “It gives them opportunities to speak on behalf of our profession. We need to speak for each other, or else we will continue to rely on non-educators to speak for us.”