When Mandy Perez was little, she remembers asking her elementary school teachers at the end of every school year for their extra worksheets.
“I would take those worksheets home and play school with my little sister during the summertime,” she said. “I never stop learning, and I love working with children. It’s my passion in life.”
Teachers like her 5th-grade teacher Richard Littrell and Lora Lee Duncan, her 6th-grade teacher, saw something special in Perez and helped her believe in herself. To this day, Perez still has a book in her classroom library gifted to her by Duncan.
“Both of these educators set the bar high in education for me,” she said. “I hope that I have in some way passed on the greatness they shared with me and my educational experience to my students.”
Perez’ father, Jose, is originally from Panama and moved to the United States when he was 16 years old. Her mother Marylin is originally from Crittenden County, the county Perez now teaches in. After graduating from Union County High School, Perez was the first in her family to go to college.
The child of divorced parents, she did not have the same typical college experience as most of her peers, having to stay at home to help take care of her younger siblings. Perez felt she made the best choices for her family and they have been her “biggest support system” throughout her educational career.
“They have been there for me through every high and every low,” she said. “I know that they are extremely proud.”
Perez earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from Murray State University. For the past 18 years, she has taught in Crittenden County Schools. She currently teaches 6th-grade English and language arts at Crittenden County Middle School.
Now as the 2023 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, Perez plans to use her role to inspire students to fall in love with reading. This mission has been her life’s work as an educator, helping students connect to reading as “the purest form of entertainment.”
“The power that lies behind getting kids excited for reading is truly magical. It warms my heart,” she said.
According to Perez, students don’t dislike reading, they simply haven’t found the book that captivates their mind and heart yet.
“Educators and society owe it to our students to promote a love for reading,” she said. “Stories can be used as learning tools to teach the importance of understanding one’s culture, being kind, showing acceptance, exercising patience, working through differences, practicing the power of giving. There are so many lessons students can relate to and connect within a story. It’s these types of stories that teach them how to cope, deal with situations and understand who they are.”
One of the ways she hooks students into wanting to read is through First Chapter Friday, an idea she came across from a teacher on Instagram last school year. Every Friday, Perez introduces a new book with a trailer first and then students listen to the first chapter. While listening, they record their thoughts, emotions, connections, predictions and rate the book in a sketch notes organizer.
The idea behind First Chapter Friday is to expose the students to various genres. Some of the most popular books have been “Ghost Boys,” “Ground Zero,” “House Arrest,” “Bridge to Terabithia,” ‘Linked” and “Fever 1793.”
“After the introduction of ‘Ghost Boys,’ so many students wanted a copy of it to read that I had to order more from Amazon that day,” she said. “I made a post on Facebook sharing with my friends and family how excited my students were about First Chapter Friday and this particular book and a parent commented that her son came home and had her order it immediately.”
Her students’ latch on to the reading fever and take it home with them. After Perez introduced “Fever 1793” one Friday, she was informed that a high school student bought the book and was reading it with her brother, who was in Perez’ class.
“It was their nightly routine thing to do,” she said. “It’s so sweet.”
Reading can and should include graphic novels, audiobooks and other forms of more non-traditional texts beyond a novel, according to Perez. More importantly, students should be able to see themselves in the works they engage with.
“Not only can this assist in teaching students empathy and other social-emotional learning skills, but it can also affirm to students – minority students, specifically – that they matter,” she said. “Presenting them with texts that showcase individuals like themselves can teach them that their voices matter.”
After teaching at Crittenden County Elementary School for 16 years, Perez decided to change grade levels and started teaching at Crittenden County Middle School in 2020. Not only was she in a new school, teaching new grade level and without her own classroom, she was teaching a new subject: math.
During this transition, her nervousness was comforted by the fact many of her 3rd- and 4th-grade students were in her class again.
“I was extremely nervous about my new role, but I wasn’t going to quit teaching because it is my passion. If it meant I had to teach in a subject matter I didn’t feel overly confident in, then so be it because I can do anything if I set my mind to it,” she said.
Perez taught math for one year and then moved into her current position, teaching 6th-grade English and language arts.
The change from elementary to middle school came with a change in her understanding of her students’ needs. Middle school students do not open up as easily as the younger ones, she said.
“I find myself showing and reminding them constantly they are loved for and cared about,” she said.
Perez had the chance to learn more about her students through a lesson with the book “A Monster Calls” by Patrick Ness. The book shares insights regarding how people cope with their own inner thoughts, feelings, bullying, pain and loss.
“I struggled reading it for the first time last year because I could relate to it so well with my mother’s struggles with cancer and how it has affected me personally,” Perez said.
During the lesson plan, Perez assigned her students a writing project, asking them to relate the themes in the book to the monsters in their own lives. The responses shocked and shattered her.
“If I had … not allowed them to express themselves freely, I might not have ever known what they were carrying with them on the inside,” Perez said. “Students are dealing with so many emotions and many are holding them in. It’s so important that they have someone they can turn to and trust.”
Her relationships with students extend beyond the classroom. She attends cheerleading competitions, junior varsity football games, recognition nights, local parades, middle school basketball games, high school football games and soccer games. She once was a surprise guest judge for a baking contest with the local 4-H cooking club, which several of her students were members of at the time.
“Relationships are key in building trust and success. I do my best to celebrate and support my students in and out of the classroom,” she said. “I do whatever I can to let my students know that I’m their teacher and number one supporter from 8-3, but also beyond.”
Perez believes that even though her story isn’t a perfect one, it’s a story of perseverance.
“My story … is filled with joy and pain, struggles and fears, and overcoming the odds,” she said. “I didn’t come from a long line of family educators. Nothing has ever been handed to me. I have had to work hard for every success. If it can happen for me, it can happen for anyone.”
Before being named the 2023 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and the 2023 Kentucky Middle School Teacher of the Year, Perez’ biggest professional accomplishment was remaining in the classroom for 18 years. Though she has had the opportunity to leave, she stays for her biggest inspiration – her students.
“It’s the moments when something finally clicks in class,” she said, “when a former student comes back to visit, when I get a shout-out while shopping in public, when I receive an honorary diploma from a senior during their senior walk, when a student takes the time to draw me a picture or write me a handwritten note. It’s all of the little things combined that make what I do worthwhile.
“Just when I think I can’t go on, an unexpected blessing from a student will occur and it serves as a reminder for me that I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”