Kelly Gates is as homegrown as they come in Hopkins County. Born and raised in Madisonville, she has been teaching at Pride Elementary School (Hopkins County) for her entire 26-year career.
Now Gates is representing her home as the 2023 Kentucky Elementary School Teacher of the Year.
Like many children, Gates played “school” growing up, but it was not until her late teenage years that she began to consider becoming a teacher.
“I had a natural connection that flowed from me every time I worked with students in any capacity, whether at church or volunteering for Project Self-Esteem at a local school for my college psychology class,” she said.
Gates said she was first drawn to the elementary level because of her positive experiences with the age group.
“I feel most impactful at the elementary level. I love the foundation we lay here, and we create building blocks for the future success of our kids when they reach the middle and high school levels,” she said.
One of the ways Gates impacts her students is through the Courtyard of Curiosity, Pride Elementary’s outdoor learning space that first was envisioned nearly 11 years ago. Gates applied to numerous grants opportunities, secured funding, worked with a local volunteer organization called GE Elfuns and collaborated with a local landscaping business to create the garden space.
“One Saturday, we had about 30 volunteers between the school and GE Elfuns employees, and we created the initial garden landscape,” she said.
The Courtyard of Curiosity Club, the school’s gardening club that maintains the outdoor space year-round, has expanded and evolved to include other community service projects and environmental field trips. The club donates produce cultivated in the garden to local food banks, conducts environmental studies and performs community service on and off the campus, like planting trees with the Humane Society and 4-H camp.
Gates also uses the Courtyard of Curiosity for some of her favorite lessons with local partners like the Pennyroyal Master Gardeners. For the past five summers, master gardener and retired teacher Laura Teague has invited the Courtyard of Curiosity Club to her personal garden to learn about the hybridization of daylilies.
“The kids feel like mad scientists when they learn about diploids and tetraploids and how to cross flowers for desired characteristics,” said Gates.
Students use map skills, life science and problem solving while creating their crossings. Gates said the group has even sold hybridizations for an introduction to entrepreneurial skills as well.
“We even had a child use a photograph she took with a cell phone on location and she entered it into the county fair,” she said. “She won!”
Kristy Saint, principal of Pride Elementary and Gates’ colleague for more than 20 years, said the Courtyard of Curiosity and the clubs and activities that surround it are one of Gates’ biggest impacts.
“She has received countless grants and resources for our school to have one of the most beautiful science-rich environments for our students to explore and learn about nature,” said Saint. “This has really allowed students to find strengths within themselves that they didn’t know they had.”
Gates has secured more than $100,000 in grant funding to address the needs of the entire student population. These range from the Courtyard of Curiosity and an outdoor classroom with wheelchair accessible picnic tables, to hosting monthly family literacy nights.
She has now taught her students how to write grants as well.
Gates worked with a student to secure a $2,000 grant from Hillshire Farms to honor victims of the December 2021 tornadoes in western Kentucky. The grant will be used to create a memorial garden filled with flowers chosen by the tornado victims’ families.
Getting students involved in community services like this is important to Gates.
“As teachers we shape lives, not just academically, but our future citizens that will lead our communities,” she said. “We have a powerful opportunity to shape our future by teaching and modeling service. If we make that investment now, then we will show our students the rewards that come with service. They see change in action. We model how to prevent problems as well as how to solve them.”
Gates models this service by dedicating many hours of her time to supporting her students outside of regular school hours and during winter and summer breaks, from photographing students at their school sporting events to being present at baptism services and Boy Scout ceremonies.
“She understands that to truly reach students, you have to display genuine interest in them,” said Saint. “It doesn’t matter how busy she is in her career or personal life; she invests and gives her all to those relationships. If she ever sees a way to elevate a student, she goes forth with a tenacity that is unmatched by any other.”
Gates’ advocacy for her students goes beyond the classroom. She is a longtime member of the Kentucky Education Association and was involved in the early grassroots efforts of KY120 United – AFT, a statewide grassroots advocacy group that focuses on policies impacting public education. She said advocacy is an important part of bringing about change.
“Being a member of both organizations has offered me ways to grow and lead in ways that directly impact my students and our employees in public education,” she said. “Having a teacher voice not only present, but incorporated into policymaking, is absolutely necessary for all stakeholder needs to be met.”
Gates said she is humbled to be named the 2023 Kentucky Elementary School Teacher of the Year, and that there are many amazing teachers throughout the Commonwealth.
Her message to Kentucky teachers is simple:
“Seek to surround yourself with positive influences in our profession,” she said. “Know that you are an agent of change. You have the power to change the world – one student at a time.”