By Brenna R. Kelly
After growing up in a family of educators, Sarah Reed wanted to go her own way. She worked as a paralegal, a nanny and a secretary, but none of those jobs made her happy.
Then she enrolled at a teaching college.
“That’s when I really found my passion,” she said. And thousands of students in Jefferson County are thankful that she did.
Now in her 18th year of teaching, Reed was named the 2015 Kentucky Teacher of the Year last week in a ceremony in Frankfort. Faye Smith, an 8th-grade math teacher at Campbell County Middle School, was named Middle School Teacher of the Year and Joshua Underwood, who teaches chemistry at Mason County High School, was named High School Teacher of the Year.
Reed, who will represent the state in the national Teacher of the Year contest, receives $10,000 and will be offered a semester sabbatical. Smith and Underwood receive $3,000 each.
“Day in and day out, Kentucky’s classroom teachers are proving that our students can achieve at high levels and that they can graduate college- and career-ready,” said Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday. “Teachers are one of the state’s most valuable assets, and these teachers represent the best in Kentucky.”
When students come into Reed’s 3rd-grade classroom each day at Field Elementary, they don’t always know what’s going to happen, but they know it’s going be an adventure.
“I get gooey and dirty,” said Reed, who has been at the school for five years. “I’m a little kooky, and they will say that.”
Whether it’s hulling pumpkins to use the seeds in lessons, dressing like a pirate or creating individualized mathematics homework assignments, Reed is always doing something to engage her students and deepen their learning.
“I try to translate content into something that makes sense to a kid,” she said.
After all the teachers in the school switched rooms, Reed turned her new classroom into a pirate ship. She took the furniture home and painted it all black and added pirate messages such as “Me Thinkin’ Chair.” She even built a plank.
Students wrote their own pirate constitution with the rule, “Ye must not bully.”
Reed also uses the pirate theme to explain how she triumphs over the challenges that come along with teaching.
“When you’re a pirate you have to go to unknown lands and you have to have the tools and resources to deal with anything that comes in your path,” she said. “And for me, my tools and resources come through CIITs, from KDE, Jefferson County and all the resource people that are making my job so much easier.”
Reed also credits the development of professional learning communities and improved professional development over the last several years with helping her succeed. Reed, a National Board Certified Teacher, has taken every professional learning opportunity she can.
“Learning is what makes me strong and enables me to be flexible with all the changes that keep on happening,” she said. “Plus learning translates to improved teaching, and also improved student learning.”
A love of learning is also what drives middle school teacher Faye Smith.
“Each day is another chance to see a child get excited about making a new connection and I play a part in that by giving them the environment where they can learn,” said Smith, who is in her 28th year as a teacher.
She knew she wanted to be a teacher when she discovered at age 13 that she had a knack for explaining things to her friends – and that when she did it, she found satisfaction in watching them learn.
For several years, Smith has taught accelerated math such as Algebra I and geometry to 7th- and 8th-graders. Her teaching style involves meeting students where they are in the content and then taking them further than they thought possible.
“Students are what we are here for,” she said. “I believe in kids and I believe in pushing them as hard as they can go and more.”
Her advice to other teachers is to focus on the time spent with students, not the paperwork or other ancillary aspects of teaching.
“We have got to believe that each and every day might be the day that a child makes that special connection and learns what we intended,” she said. “We have to believe that there is no greater gift than making a positive difference in the life of a child.”
High school chemistry teacher Joshua Underwood credits his former district and other teachers with helping him become an effective teacher.
“I’ve been fortunate to go out and meet a lot of other teachers to find out what works and what hasn’t,” said Underwood, who is in his first year at Mason County High School after spending 14 years at Robertson County.
“Robertson County was very good about giving me the freedom to try new things and go places and learn,” he said. “I appreciate school systems that see the value in letting teachers try new things.”
Underwood is now trying to get to know all his students in the nearly 800-student Mason County High. He’s emailing students about their interests, attending events they’re involved in and chatting with them when he sees them in the halls or in the community.
“I feel that this connection is what helps a teacher reach the students and makes them feel comfortable enough to ask for help when it is needed,” he said.
Because of the teachers that have helped him, Underwood said he makes it a point to return the favor, particularly through helping others with the National Board certification process. He recommends that all teachers get involved with some organization so they can develop a network of support.
“It is amazing how much I’ve grown professionally by spending time with other teachers that were willing to share their knowledge and experiences,” he said.
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