Picture of Mandy Perez.

Mandy Perez, 2023 Kentucky Teacher of the Year

Rewind to March 2022. Just like every other teacher I know, I quickly scanned the 20,000 emails in my school inbox (if yours is less than that, share your secret) during my lunch period and skipped right over an email from “Kentucky Teacher of the Year.” Let’s face it – why would they be emailing me?

Later that evening, I came across a Facebook post from the Kentucky Department of Education congratulating nearly 2,000 teachers for being nominated for the 2023 Kentucky Teacher Awards program and saying to look for an email with additional information. Was that the email I came across earlier today? I checked my inbox and there it was: a congratulatory statement followed by the application process for the Kentucky Teacher of the Year Award. I was humbled realizing that someone took time out of their day to show appreciation for what I do.

To be honest, I almost didn’t complete the application. It’s rigorous. I was an elementary teacher for 16 years and was just beginning my first year as the 6th-grade English language arts teacher when I was nominated. I had difficulty responding to some of the essay questions because I was still in the process of getting my feet wet with the curriculum and content.

I shared what I brought to the table as a teacher in new, uncharted territory. A teacher is someone who makes learning possible, which often means preparing the groundwork for students to initiate their own personal learning journey. This is where I choose to put my focus as a teacher and what I described in my application.

Fast forward a few months when I learned that I was one of 24 educators selected as the 2023 Valvoline Teacher Achievement Award winners and would be advancing in the competition. I was struck with absolute disbelief. Stuff like this doesn’t happen to people like me.

Next, I was notified that I was chosen as one of the semi-finalists. At this point, I wasn’t sure what was happening. For everyday people – the unknowns, the ones from the towns with one stop light – this kind of recognition is rare. I am as simple as they come. I don’t do anything special. I love my students and teaching. I’m just like every other teacher I know. We don’t do this work for recognition; we do it because we love it and are passionate about it.

They say comparison is the thief of joy. It is true. Don’t scope out the competition. Trust me, I did and I had already counted myself out. During the semi-finalist interview I was asked a question that required me to respond as if I were selected as the 2023 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. I laughed and replied, “Oh, this is not for me. I’m honored to be named among the other amazing educators. I am not a public speaker. I say the wrong things, use the wrong words and stumble over phrases. It is an honor to make it this far. I love kids and teaching. It’s that simple.”

And they chose me.

If you are thinking about submitting the Kentucky Teacher of the Year application right now, remember that you offer something special. You have a gift that sets you apart from the rest. Trust in the fact that others recognize it and believe in you. You are worthy.

My best advice to you all, my fellow teachers, is to always share your story and experience straight from the heart. Be real. Be honest. Be you. Your story matters. More importantly, you matter.

I am excited for what the future holds as this incredible journey being the 2023 Kentucky Teacher of the Year takes off.

I am grateful to the ones who have provided this opportunity for me. If it can happen for me, it can happen for anyone! I imagine our stories aren’t that different. Best wishes to you all!