The Imperfect Classroom

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.

In my own journey through public education, I have always been attuned to the experience of young people who feel defined by their circumstances. Even as a kid growing up in Covington, my life seemed to be determined by my socioeconomic status and my family history. My experience is far from unique in Kentucky, where opportunities are sometimes not readily available or apparent. The factor that often changes this perception for young folks – and for me personally – are teachers who invest in their students and open their eyes to the possibilities the world has to offer. In Knott County, English teacher and all-around incredible human Cathy Conley does that and so much more for the students that walk through her doors.

Cathy is a graduate of Morehead State University and is in her 28th year of teaching, 27 of them at Knott County Central High School. Being from Appalachia herself, she is intimately aware of her students’ struggles. When asked about her hometown and her students, Cathy said with pride that “Most of my students come from circumstances that no outsider may ever understand, yet they win every day.” Even though she knows this to be true in her heart, what makes it more impressive is that she helps her students to see their own wins and overcome their struggles each and every day.

One of the many ways she has done this is through her Freedom Writers project brilliantly titled, “We Are Knott Alone.” This project gives a voice to the experiences of her entire community and paints a picture of the small, resilient, proud Appalachian community. She has cabinets of composition notebooks that have traveled throughout her community and captured the stories of celebration, connection, comfort, and resolve of a community that refuses to be defined by their circumstances. According to one of her students, “when something happens around here (Knott County), it hits hard and lasts long.” The effort of Cathy Conley and her Freedom Writers project helps to make sure that whatever it is they are going through that her students know they are loved and supported, no matter how long it lasts or how hard it hits.

Cathy Conley

Cathy Conley

I am in awe of Cathy’s dedication to her students and her willingness to do whatever it takes for her students to be ready to learn. Every day she brings excitement and energy into her lessons to be sure that the experience they have at school is positive, uplifting, and welcoming. Many times, those lessons are so over-the-top that it is hard to imagine having the energy it takes to replicate each and every day, but Cathy does it.

If you ask her coworkers, they’ll tell you that the size of her heart is unmatched. When someone in her community suffers a loss, Cathy is the one who puts together the meal train or gift basket. When one of her former students is going through a crisis, Cathy is the one that mentors them, guides them, and believes in them until they are able to believe in themselves. When a student doesn’t have anyone to stand beside them on senior night, Cathy not only shows up to the event, but takes her shopping for a dress. As one of her students puts it, “she works with you, not around you.”

Cathy is doing the thing that all teachers want to do but turned up to eleven. She knows her students’ needs at a personal level and doesn’t allow their circumstances to dictate their success. She loves them wholly as they are and guides them to the future they decide.

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 Kevin Dailey.

Kevin Dailey is a teacher at Ballyshannon Middle School in Boone County, Kentucky and is currently serving as the 2024 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. All opinions in this story are his and not necessarily reflective of the Kentucky Department of Education.