By Matthew Tungate
Bullitt County school psychologist Misty Lay began working with a defiant 2nd grader who spent most of his time in the principal’s office and not learning. But over the next three years, Lay worked with him on both his behavior and his academic needs to overcome a learning disability.
Now, the boy is on the honor roll and is a leader in the school’s peer mentoring program. He also no longer requires any additional services to be successful at school.
“I congratulated him and told him how proud I was of him,” Lay said. “He then looked down, hugged me and said, ‘And I owe a lot of that to you.’”
Lay doesn’t help just children. Monica Tharp, director of Special Education in the Bullitt County school district, said Lay helps adults, too.
A few years ago, Lay noticed teachers and staff at a school were very stressed. So, Lay invited the staff to meet before school to work on relaxation and stress-relief strategies, Tharp said.
“This work was done outside of Misty’s daily schedule, but was provided due to the need that Misty saw and to which she responded,” Tharp said.
Because of these and many other successes, the National Association of School Psychologists named Lay its 2010 School Psychologist of the Year – only the third Kentuckian to ever win the award.
Lay said she found out she had won the award as she was complaining to a friend that her car had been totaled in an accident, her cell phone was dead and “I was just having one of those ‘the world is out to get me’ kind of days.”
While she is humbled by the recognition, it’s not what drives her, Lay said.
“I am rewarded every day by finding a niche in a career that allows me to work toward a lifetime goal: being a difference maker. I truly am dedicated to the field of school psychology. What other career offers so many various opportunities to make a difference?” she said. “At the same time, it’s so easy to succumb to the routine of the daily grind. I aim to always stay one step ahead of the grinder and to not allow the details of the job to overshadow the joy of this career.”
School psychologists are trained to help students with academic, cognitive, and social or emotional problems, according to Diane E. Herrick, school psychologist in the Jefferson County school district and president of the Kentucky Association for Psychology in the Schools (KAPS). They work cooperatively with teachers and administrators to reduce behavior problems and improve school climate. They are skilled in analyzing data and connecting that data to appropriate interventions for struggling students. School psychologists can facilitate communication and relationships among school staff, parents, students and other professionals or agencies in the community. School psychologists also help with prevention strategies, crisis response and students with special education needs, Herrick said.
“As school psychologists, our role is to promote academic and social growth for all members of the school community. The breadth and depth of Misty’s skills, knowledge and creativity place her in an elite league,” she said. “She is innovative, resourceful, helpful and approachable. Misty consistently offers her very best to the schools, parents and students she serves.”
Jennifer Wooley, director of Human Resources for the Bullitt County school district, has worked with Lay since 1998 and describes her as “the perfect representation of a school psychologist.”
“There couldn’t be a better person chosen to serve as the National School Psychologist of the Year. She is a consummate professional in that she is extremely knowledgeable in her field of school psychology, knows what good teaching looks like, knows what children need at all developmental levels, is a numbers whiz and is constantly learning new information in order to stay on the cutting edge of school psychology,” Wooley said.
“Misty’s one true desire in life is to impact children in a positive way in all aspects of life. Identifying learning disabilities and guiding teachers to reach students’ needs enable her to fulfill that desire,” she added. “She is a leader among her colleagues in BCPS but then takes this to a larger scale in that she is a leader in our community, in our state, and at the national level. She has even moved into the political arena by working with legislators to assist them in making good decisions/laws/regulations for children.”
Katherine Matthews, school psychologist with the Jefferson County school district, said Lay also has been a step ahead of the state on Response to Intervention (RTI), which integrates assessment and intervention to maximize student achievement and to reduce behavior problems. Lay, Herrick and Matthews are working together on a model for identifying students with specific learning disabilities, using both comprehensive assessments and RTI data.
“Misty approaches her interactions with students, families and colleagues with a high level of sincerity, professionalism and expertise. She was a true visionary in Kentucky as she implemented and trained others on Response to Intervention,” Matthews said. “Misty epitomized best practice standards as she worked tirelessly to train staff and develop local norms.”
She also commended Lay in her role as two-time past president and current president-elect of KAPS.
“She provides exceptional leadership to school psychologists in Kentucky. She is aware of training needs and organizes quality professional development,” Matthews said. “As a leader, Misty networks with legislative representatives to ensure that the voices of children are heard and that psychological principles and best practices are considered during the legislative process.”
Tharp is impressed with the dedication Lay shows in her work.
“Misty is an advocate for students. She gives thoughtful consideration to eligibility decisions and uses all of the information gathered during assessment to assist the admissions and release committee in making appropriate decisions on behalf of the children,” Tharp said. “The decision to label a child with a disability is a serious task and one which Misty does not take lightly.”
Growing up in a small eastern Kentucky town, Lay said she has grown up to be simple, thorough and focused on making people’s lives better.
“Each day brings the opportunity to make a difference, whether directly or indirectly, whether it’s for a student, a parent or a coworker. In moments of crisis and in moments of calm, making that simple connection, through a smile, a hug or a nod, sends the message, ‘I hear you, and I understand,’” Lay said. “We’re not always aware of the impact of our actions, but they do make a difference.”
Lay said she tries to use her knowledge about the way students learn and to understand the effects of social, emotional, environmental, physical and behavioral challenges on children. While she does work directly with students, most of her accomplishments come by working with parents, principals, family resource directors, curriculum coaches “and, most of all, teachers.”
“It is my role to make things easier for (teachers) when it comes to discovering ways to help differentiate instruction or manage a classroom with behavior challenges or get more parents involved in their child’s learning,” she said.
The key to working with teachers is through building relationships, Lay said.
She works hard to increase her communication and visibility in the three schools with which she works.
“It is very important to remember that regardless of setting, we are all part of a system where reputations, knowledge and skills are based on one’s experiences,” Lay said. “Many may see their school psychologist as the expert on all things far and wide, while others may only see their school psychologist as the ‘tester’ for special education. It has always been important to me to avoid being typecast in one role or skill set. I have tried to make an effort to develop my reputation for having knowledge in more than one area.”