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.

Seneca High School (Jefferson County) is a lot like the high school I went to growing up (I’m a proud graduate of Holmes High School (Covington Independent). Go Dawgs!): it’s extremely diverse, offers incredible college and vocational opportunities to its students, and is full of hope and perseverance that many from the outside just do not see.

I visited Seneca to participate in a story exchange that was coordinated by a high school student who wanted to improve the school culture by creating a platform for teachers and students to get to better understand each other. One of the young women who participated in this activity told the story of how she came to join the Black Students Union at the school and raved about the club sponsor, Brandon Riddle.

Brandon is a civics teacher at Seneca and teaches courses that bring students’ lived experience into the classroom, but also sponsors the Black Students Union and is a member of the Racial Equity Team. He is a graduate of the University of Louisville and before that, Seneca High School. It is a special thing for a teacher to work in the same school they went through themselves; it brings a lived experience that is hard to replicate.

What I found extremely captivating about Brandon was that despite being from Louisville and graduating from Seneca High School, he is fully aware that his experience is vastly different from many of his students. For him, that acknowledgment is critical as a white teacher of non-white students. “I’ve been really aware of and concerned about racial inequalities for my entire adult life. I think for white teachers, it’s really important to consider how your lived experience is not the same as your non-white students. When we fail to account for that, our students could be alienated by what we say and how we say it.”

Brandon Riddle

Brandon Riddle, Seneca High School (Jefferson County)

That is something his students recognize and appreciate too. When I asked his students about him, the overwhelming response was that he makes students feel like their voice is heard and each student matters. He treats them all as equals and isn’t afraid to have real conversations with them.

But the magic I saw with Brandon was in the simplicity and sincerity of his purpose: humanity comes first. Like all of us, young and old, his students come to the classroom with their own way of seeing the world that is valid and needs to be nurtured. And he obviously lives that purpose every day. Just being in his room for a short period of time and it was obvious that every student was welcome and wanted.

As I talked with Brandon, one statement came up over and over in a way that made me fully understand why every student who walked by his room made sure to say “hey” and why he was the first name to come up when I asked about the teachers at Seneca High School. “I like my students as people, no matter what kind of student they are.” That isn’t something you can fake.

Despite being named the 2020 Kentucky Council for the Social Studies Teacher of the Year and being deeply involved in various leadership roles in his school and district, when I asked Brandon what he was most proud of in his entire career he went straight to the human response. For the sake of privacy and anonymity, I won’t go into great detail, but he told a story of a student he was able to help by simply being human. “Of all the things I’ve ever done as a teacher, just checking on a student who seemed down was the most significant act and greatest accomplishment.”

I left Seneca High School so much more inspired than when I entered the building. Inspired by students who take ownership of their community by organizing events to bring everyone together. Inspired by a building of people who embrace their diversity by being more compassionate and tolerant human beings. Inspired by students and teachers who stand up for justice and equity in their classrooms and beyond. But most of all, I left inspired by the teacher whose greatest accomplishment was simply, yet profoundly just being human.

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.