By Matthew Tungate
Kristal Doolin, a 7th-grade language arts teacher at Corbin Middle School (Corbin Independent), has loved reading and writing since she was young.
“I just love words,” she said.
It is this love of words that lead her to become a language arts teacher. It was her love of teaching about words that lead her to be named the 2013 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.
Doolin, who also was named Kentucky Middle School Teacher of the Year, received the award Oct. 17 at a ceremony in Frankfort hosted by Ashland Inc. and the Kentucky Department of Education. Heidi Givens, a teacher of deaf and hard-of-hearing students at Tamarack Elementary (Daviess County), was named 2013 Elementary School Teacher of the Year. Allison Hunt, a social studies teacher at duPont Manual High School (Jefferson County), was named 2013 High School Teacher of the Year.
This is the third time in four years that a teacher from Corbin Independent and third year in a row that a teacher from Jefferson County has been named either elementary, middle or high school Teacher of the Year.
Doolin received $10,000 and a commemorative crystal-glass bowl, and the Department of Education will provide a sabbatical or suitable alternative. Givens and Hunt received $3,000 each and a customized, art-glass vase.
Doolin, who will represent the state in the 2013 National Teacher of the Year competition, said she tries to give her students the best year of language arts they have ever had. She asks them at the beginning of the year to write her a letter stating what she could do to make it their best year ever. Then she adjusts her instruction accordingly, she said.
Doolin, who is in her 16th year of teaching, said she starts the year asking students to read a common book. She said she tries to find one that will interest both boys and girls, such as The Hunger Games.
“I find that that shared experience builds a camaraderie, a community, in the classroom so that they’ve all got that one thing we can all refer back to,” she said.
During the rest of the year, however, she allows the students to choose their own books to read, and she monitors their progress through Accelerated Reader. Students also read poems, a play, and informational and persuasive texts such as editorials and speeches together throughout the year, she said.
Doolin said she tries to teach her students to be analytical readers, so that they’re not only reading for enjoyment but they’re also noticing details of the writing, such as figurative language. They work in reading circles to discuss what they have read.
“It’s a really high-level experience, and they don’t even realize it’s happening,” she said.
Besides working in reading circles, students also connect with each other and Doolin through the classroom social networking site Edmodo, which students know they have to check every night and where they can reach Doolin as late as 9 p.m.
Doolin might create a video or find one and post it so students have something to reference if they are struggling with a concept. She also posts assignments and quizzes.
Doolin said using Edmodo allows her to work individually with students in a backchannel conversation outside normal school hours. What’s most rewarding is when students help each other, she said.
“That’s one of the things that I love, because I really believe that you learn so much from teaching others,” Doolin said. “I get on there and I see my students answering each other – that’s phenomenal.”
Another technology that Doolin uses is Todays Meet, an online backchannel conversation area where students can use smartphones (either their own or one provided by the school) to ask questions during class without interrupting. Doolin answers the student and posts the answer to everyone in the class – unless a student answers the question first.
“It really lends itself well to teaching students who are at different levels and creating a setup so that they’re helping one another, which in turn teaches them and brings in the technology that motivates them,” she said. “When I let them get their iPhones out in class, it’s golden.”
“In my classroom, you will rarely see me as the center of attention in the front of the room. My students are the center of attention,” she continued. “They’re fabulous. They really teach each other. Sometimes I think I could not even be in the room and they would just keep rolling, and I love it.”
Givens, the Elementary Teacher of the Year, also believes in giving her students freedom to make some decisions. For the last nine years, Givens taught students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing in a self-contained elementary classroom. This year she is working with eight such preschool, elementary and middle school students in the Daviess County and Owensboro Independent school districts.
“I’m all about letting the children discover for themselves what’s best for them,” she said.
For instance, her students may want to take out their hearing aids. Rather than telling them they can’t because it will make learning more difficult, Givens tells them to do what they want.
“Kids learn best when they discover for themselves what they need to succeed,” she said. “Instead of telling them they must wear their hearing aids, I let them figure out for themselves that they need them to learn. If you empower them to make their own decisions, those decisions will stay with them.”
Givens said she treats her students as she would any other child. “I do not look at them as having a disability. Every day I live by the motto ‘Deaf children can do anything hearing children can do, except hear.’ I also teach them to view themselves as persons, not persons with a disability, who can do anything,” she said.
Givens, who is in her 18th year teaching, said students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing are like all children – all can flourish and excel. However, students with hearing loss whose parents can hear often start their school years with a vocabulary deficit, she said. They might learn sign language, but they miss out on “incidental learning” they might get from conversations or even listening to the television, Givens said.
“You spend so much time trying to give them that language, and then when they get into kindergarten, they’re not at a 5-year-old’s language level. So you have to start teaching them academics, but at the same time they don’t even have the basic vocabulary to understand what you’re trying to teach them,” she said. “The challenge is the constant catch-up, the constant filling in the blanks.”
So content that may take a teacher one or two class periods for hearing children may take her a week or two, Givens said. Students whose parents use sign language around them have an expanded vocabulary and don’t usually face that obstacle, she said.
Once students increase their language, they can excel just as any child can, Givens said. But because the numbers of students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing is so small relative to the general population, Givens said she has to educate the students, parents, school administrators and the community about her students’ needs and rights.
“I’m the students’ cheerleader, and I try to provide them as many opportunities as possible, whether it’s academically or socially, just to see what’s out there and for everyone to look at them positively,” Givens said.
Hunt, the High School Teacher of the Year, is actually in her second career. Now in her 11th year as a teacher, Hunt started her career as a stockbroker. She quickly realized that she enjoyed teaching her clients about investments, but it was the teaching – not the investments – that she loved.
“I had actually thought about being a teacher and expressed interest in teaching in high school,” Hunt said. “When I expressed my desire, though, most people I knew in the education profession advised me to select something else. I thought that if many in the profession advised against it that maybe it was indeed a silly idea and put it out of my head until later.”
At Manual, Hunt teaches Advanced Placement Human Geography and co-teaches Legal Issues with an attorney.
Human Geography is about people, how they interact as groups and with other groups, and how geography shapes people.
“Regardless of selected profession, the material discussed in AP Human Geography makes students better-informed world citizens,” she said.
Hunt said while she appreciates the Teacher of the Year award, it really provides publicity about what many teachers across the state are doing – caring about students and working hard to teach them. She encouraged teachers to make a difference in students’ lives “one student at a time, challenging, motivating and removing obstacles to the learning process so that all students can reach their potential.”
“I love my job, I love my students, and I strive to improve every day,” Hunt said. “There is no such thing as a perfect teacher. What works today for one student will not work tomorrow for another student.”
Donna Melton, firstname.lastname@example.org, (502) 564-1473
Kristal Doolin, email@example.com, (606) 523-3619
Heidi Givens, firstname.lastname@example.org, (270) 852-7550
Allison Hunt, email@example.com, (502) 485-8241