Kevin Dailey

Kevin Dailey, 2024 Kentucky Teacher of the Year

In an effort to better capture and celebrate the wealth of knowledge and expertise of teachers across the state, I set out to interview and observe educators from every corner of Kentucky. The process was simple: find teachers who create classrooms where kids want to be, get to know them and bear witness to what makes them special, and then celebrate that experience. It is my theory that every single school in Kentucky has teachers that I can learn from and are worth celebrating. None of these teachers are perfect, but through their imperfections, they all have something special they contribute to their students and their community. I hope by sharing my experience with these teachers, our communities can have a window into our classrooms and other teachers can begin to embrace their own Imperfect Classrooms.


Love them or hate them, they are here to stay. For all of their overuse and oversimplification, they serve a purpose: to provide a common shorthand for priorities in the profession.

Thanks in part to Simon Sinek, one phrase that has dominated in recent years is “Remember Your Why” (every teacher reading this just shuddered). To be clear, I love the sentiment behind this phrase: it helps to motivate, encourage and to place one bad moment into perspective. It becomes problematic when such a thoughtful, well-meaning phrase gets weaponized to silence legitimate concerns about things that do direct harm to the professional, as well as the profession. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in education; after all, our “why” is often tied directly to who we are and is therefore easy to draw attention to when times are tough.

Maintaining the clarity of purpose that drives most teachers and balancing their own emotional and physical well-being is a feat that requires strength, resolve and intention. When you meet teachers that possess that ability, you can’t help but marvel, which is exactly what I did when I traveled to Porter Elementary in Johnson County to see Nikki Johnson.

Nikki Johnson talks to students in her classroom.

Nikki Johnson

Nikki is new to the school, but you would never know it. Her classroom and her presence feels like it has always been there. From my observation, it isn’t because she started with “why,” but because she started with “where.” As soon as you step foot into Nikki’s 2nd-grade classroom, you can’t help but feel the warmth, caring and love of a person that made a space for you. Every space is carefully and intentionally designed to be a place of learning, but also a place of belonging and comfort.

As is the case with most elementary classrooms, the bulletin boards and learning centers are expertly – and adorably – crafted spaces packed full of information, reminders and resources. What makes her room exceptionally special is that everything, and everyone, feels like they belong exactly where they are. From the books that provide students a chance to see themselves as the main character of the story, to anchor charts that provide multiple methods and opportunities to learn, to the individualized cubbies, bins and data walls that celebrate every kid, everything has its place. Even Nikki’s students remarked that her room is more than just a room. One student told me that they love the class because, “she shows us more than one way to do stuff and she gives us a lot of tools.”

Another thing that you can’t help but notice about Nikki is her energy and dedication to making the school experience fun and exciting for her students and her colleagues. One of her coworkers told me that even just the way she presents information inspires confidence and a love for school in her students. One of the most amazing examples of this came when the school was predicted to have a snow day this past winter, but ended up having school at the last minute. While most of the other classes saw extremely high absences, hers were completely full. Her classroom isn’t just a place to learn, it’s a place to feel happy, loved and a part of something.

When I first heard about Nikki’s classroom, I asked her about her “magic” as a teacher and she quickly replied, “My goal each year is to create a learning environment that is calming, inviting and inclusive. I want students to come into the classroom and feel as if it is a fresh breath of air to be there.” As someone who has been there myself, I can assure you that she achieved her goal and then some.

Nikki’s magic is clear and it is evident the moment you walk into her classroom.

This series is designed to provide a glimpse into classrooms across Kentucky, but moreover, to celebrate our public school teachers’ contributions to their students and their communities. If you know of a teacher who creates an amazing classroom environment and brings excitement, optimism, and excellence to education in Kentucky, email to Kevin Dailey.

Kevin Dailey is a teacher at Ballyshannon Middle School in Boone County, Kentucky and is the 2024 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.