A man teaching students in a classroom.

Ballyshannon Middle School social studies teacher Kevin Dailey was celebrated Feb. 23 as the latest Kentucky educator to receive the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award. Dailey has taught at Ballyshannon since 2019, bringing history to life for his students. Photo courtesy of the Milken Family Foundation, Feb. 23, 2022.

Kevin Dailey didn’t set out to be a teacher. After a few years as an aerospace engineer and mechanical and architectural designer, he knew it was time to find something new.

“Neither one of those jobs checked enough boxes. It was good money, and I was good at it, but I didn’t really enjoy it very much,” said Dailey.

It wasn’t until he sat down and reflected on what he liked about his previous work that Dailey considered teaching. At CDI Aerospace, he ran an onboarding program to help train people on new systems and found he enjoyed the days he spent helping others learn something new. That moment of contemplation led Dailey to become an educator.

Now in his tenth year, Dailey has been an 8th grade social studies teacher at Ballyshannon Middle School (Boone County) for the past three years.  

His ability to bring history to life for students was recognized by the Milken Family Foundation, which honored him as a Milken Educator Award winner, in a surprise ceremony Feb. 23 at the school.

Dailey, who admits he’s not used to being in the spotlight, was equally embarrassed and humbled to receive the honor.

“I have these feelings of ‘Am I worthy?’ I’m speechless still about why me,” he said. “It could have been anyone [at Ballyshannon]. I’m so grateful, thankful, honored it’s me.”

Ballyshannon Middle School Principal Erika Bowles led the surprise ceremony and has been one of Dailey’s biggest advocates for recognizing his hard work with students and the school community.

“There is no partial effort with Kevin,” she said. “He’s all in, all day, every day from the moment he envisions a lesson to the delivery of content, to the analysis of student data. One of Kevin’s numerous positive attributes is this drive and determination to give all he has every day to every kid.”

When it comes to assembling the team at Ballyshannon Middle, Bowles believes character overrides any instruction methods. All the faculty and staff, at their very core, love kids. 

“We have a collection of adults working for our kids who are there to serve them.  We just happen to also be completely blessed that they are all highly skilled practitioners with a growth mindset.  Our staff is hired with laser intentionality in the best interest of kids. Kevin fits the bill,” she said.

Dailey was shocked to hear his name called in front of staff and students at the surprise ceremony. He had assumed all the special guests were there to recognize another teacher for a different award.

“These kids have it so good,” he said. “I’ve never had a group of colleagues as supportive or challenging, in the sense of becoming better. We all complement each other so well. None of us could do this job without each other.”

Eighth-grade science teacher and 2022 Kentucky Middle School Teacher of the Year Hallie Booth works two doors down from Dailey. Booth considers Dailey “non-stop” in his pursuit of student success and professional improvement.

“He develops phenomenal and engaging lessons that allow the students to inquire about real world situations connected to history,” she said. “He lets them become a part of history and really take on the era or the person that he is discussing within the historical perspective. He is always looking to better himself to become more connected to the students.”

Booth and Dailey will often strategize on how to connect their lessons and collaborate on projects connected to real world experiences for the students.

“As a teacher, it is really nice to have another teacher who is open to cross-circular instruction and those cross-circular connections,” Booth said.

Dailey confesses if he wasn’t a social studies teacher, he would be a science teacher. Over the years, the two subjects became two halves of the same coin to him.

“Science and social studies are not that different at all,” he said. “One is learning about people and how they influence the world and one is learning about the world and how it influences people.”

Whether talking about geography, ocean currents or how humans move around the planet, Dailey brings science and social studies together in his classroom every day, something he believes the standards are just now starting to encourage. 

“You can’t look at either thing in isolation,” he said. “It’s not just about understanding how the world works, it’s about understanding how we as human beings are influenced by the world and influence the world.”  

As a social studies teacher, Dailey acknowledges the national, state and local conversations currently happening around history curriculum. Even as trust in institutions is at a tipping point, he encourages the public to trust in educators to not impose their beliefs.

A man smiling softly while students around him smile and clap.

Kevin Dailey, a social studies teacher at Ballyshannon Middle School (Boone County), was surprised on Feb. 23 as the latest Kentucky educator to receive the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award. Milken Educators are selected in the early to middle stages of their career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. Photo courtesy of the Milken Family Foundation, Feb. 23, 2022.

“We have to acknowledge experts. If two and half years of COVID has taught me anything, it’s that … if we acknowledge and we respect the experience and expertise of those people who have devoted their lives to certain things, we can be further ahead,” he said.  

Dailey teaches a special topics class for enrichment and remediation where students choose topics that interest them, and they want to know more about. The class has covered the Holocaust and other global atrocities.

“As a public educator, I have no right to tell someone what to think but I do have a responsibility to expose my students to the thoughts that are surrounding a topic and come to a conclusion without being forced into it,” he said.

To Dailey, “controversial” conversations are critical in preparing students for life outside of school.

“We take a lot of pride, preparation and studying to make sure our students can form opinions on their own and can address controversial topics,” he said. “Because when they leave these walls, they will have to, by choice or not. They will have to face these questions.”

Dailey’s contributions to Ballyshannon extend beyond the classroom. When social distancing became necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dailey used the time to build a Little Library. Dailey heard Bowles in passing mention having a little library at the front of the school and, with more free time on his hands, used his woodworking skills to create a custom piece for the front of the school.

The labor of love is all in the details from a hand-tied rope ladder to a shamrock window for the Ballyshannon Shamrocks. Anyone from the school or community can stop by to exchange books.

Inspired by the construction of the library, Dailey started a woodworking club to allow students to stretch their imaginations and work with their hands.

“I want to allow students to explore themselves whether that’s through a class I teach or opportunities available to them at school,” said Dailey. “I really can’t imagine my school experience without vocational school.”

His teaching methods and dedication to his students learning and growth led to his selection as one of more than 60 Milken Educator Award winners honored during the 2021-2022 school year. The Milken Family Foundation has recognized more than 2,800 educators – including 57 in Kentucky – since the Milken Educator Awards were first presented in 1987.

He received a $25,000 unrestricted cash prize and became part of a network of colleagues that serve as a resource for educators, school boards and other groups dedicated to excellence in education.

During his acceptance speech, Dailey highlighted his 10th grade computer science teacher Linda Fox.

“I don’t know if I remember anything she taught me about computer repairs, but I remember everything that she taught me about being a good person and doing good for other people,” he said. “I watched her be supportive of everyone, no matter what. I watched her be compassionate to everyone, including me. When I think about the kind of teacher I want to be, I want to be like her. I want kids to think about me the way I think about her.”

Looking back, Dailey appreciates everyone who helped him along the way, from his wife, Jessica, to the teachers he started his career with at Gallatin County High School: Brian Gognat, now a principal at Owen County High School, and Becky Watkins, a social studies teacher at Gallatin County High School. Dailey said the crew were “young and fired up” teachers inspired to make changes beyond their classroom.

“I couldn’t be prouder to be part of that little circle,” said Dailey.