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.

If you ever find yourself driving through Eastern Kentucky and you come across the small town of Booneville, it would be worth your while to slow down just a bit and take in the rich, beautiful scenery; even better would be to talk to some of the wonderful folks around the small, mountain town. If you happen to talk to someone around the age of 10, there is an extremely high chance that you’ll hear about a Pickle Party.

Now you’re probably wondering to yourself, “what in the world is a pickle party?” A great question, really. The Pickle Party is simply that: a party with pickles – sweet, dill, spicy, you name it. But for the students and teachers of Owsley County Elementary School in Booneville, it is so much more than that. It is one of the countless creative efforts of Julia Bishop. A new tradition, a celebration of learning, a burst of fun and excitement, and most importantly, it is something that makes kids happy and ready to learn.

Julia Bishop is a 5th-grade reading teacher at Owsley Elementary. She has only been in her current role for the last three years; prior to this, she was a special education teacher in a neighboring school district – a rival I’m told – and a graduate of Eastern Kentucky University.

But back to the pickle party.

“My favorite memory of Ms. Bishop is the pickle party!” It originally started as a MAP test reward, but has become more of a welcome to the magical world of fifth grade. Students decorate the room with green streamers and balloons, they wear green clothes, they even make their green crowns that say “Pickle King” and “Pickle Queen” to celebrate their accomplishment and effort on MAP testing. The Pickle Party is a new 5th grade tradition that everyone looks forward to in all of its incredible, silly glory.

Julia Bishop

Julia Bishop, Owsley County Elementary School

But if you think about it, that’s the stuff! We all loved school because of our own version of the pickle party. While this is one of those brilliant ideas that came about because of Julia’s ability to listen to her students and her own celebration of learning, after visiting Julia’s classroom, it is so much more than that. As a fellow teacher and as an outsider to Owsley County, I was in awe that every person I spoke to seemed to confirm what was so obvious to me: no matter what challenge or opportunity that presents itself, Julia finds a way. It is a trait that requires so much: perseverance, innovation, a positive outlook, and the ability to recognize the needs of those around her, students and teachers alike.

Spending the morning in her classroom it is obvious that Julia is an incredible teacher for every single learner in her classroom. Certainly, her experience as a special education teacher contributes to her ability to ensure that every student feels confident and supported enough to learn. Her students are quick to confirm this point, saying, “She never yells at you or makes you feel bad if you don’t know something. She lets us learn in our own way.”

This is most evident in the dozens of hand-drawn flags hanging around her room. Over a school break, one student read a book about flags of the world and became instantly interested. When Julia noticed this new interest appear, she immediately made the space for it in her classroom. She encouraged the student to draw, color, and learn about these flags, and as a result, the student shares his learning with everyone that enters the classroom.

Whether it is a Pickle Party, a struggling student, or a new interest of one of her students, Julia Bishop is a master in finding a way to support her students. Her optimism is contagious and embodies this small, mountain community. As one of her coworkers puts it, Owsley County is “just like their mascot, the owl: small, but mighty.” And none are mightier than Julia Bishop. 

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.