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.

The job of a teacher is a complex one. It requires an in-depth understanding of the science of learning (how we best learn at different stages of our lives), knowledge of subject matter that is specific to the course being taught, and the ability to construct lessons, experiences, and assessments that deliver information to students and prove that it was learned. And this is just the beginning! In fact, if you ask most teachers, the majority of their focus, time, and energy is spent entirely outside of these three major facets of education. Things like communicating with parents, ensuring an equitable learning experience for every student, making sure students’ social and emotional needs are being met, helping to teach students how to embrace obstacles and overcome them, facilitating and teaching conflict resolution … the list could go on. Being a teacher often requires herculean effort.

While the vast majority of teachers are able to balance the countless duties they face day in and day out, occasionally, you come across a teacher who makes it look effortless. One such person is 2nd grade teacher Markayla Stevens at Pikeville Elementary (Pikeville Independent). Markayla is a graduate of the University of Pikeville and has been teaching at Pikeville Elementary for nine years. Not only does she make teaching look effortless, but she does so with enthusiasm, positivity, and joy that is unparalleled.

Markayla Stevens

Markayla Stevens

In Markayla’s classroom, everyone matters for who they are and where they come from. This starts well before the school year as she reaches out to families in the summer so that even before a student walks into her classroom, they are part of it. Her connection to her students and their families extends throughout the school year, in and out of the classroom. A parent of one of her former students said that what makes Markayla so special as a teacher is that she celebrates each and every student in their own way. “The special thing that she creates and provides for each student doesn’t have to be the same; each student is celebrated and no celebration is better than another.” No matter how big or small, Markayla finds – or creates – joy, pride, and opportunities for her students.

Leadership is a key component of Pikeville Elementary and once again, Markayla takes that up a notch. As a Leader in Me school, every student at Pikeville Elementary is taught how to have a mindset of leadership and how to become a leader in their own way. In Markayla’s classroom, every single student displays all of the characteristics of a leader. It was an amazing thing to witness: every activity, every transition, and every lesson was a collaboration between Markayla and her students.

One of the more extravagant and unique components of Markayla’s classroom was what she calls the “Top Dog” announcement. Each week, a student is selected at random and they are quietly and confidentially watched throughout the week. On Friday, if that student has completed all assignments, has the reading log signed, homework completed, and made good choices then they are announced the Top Dog to the class. And this is not a role that is taken lightly. A student who is quiet, shy, or struggling to feel confident in their learning can be given a boost that changes their entire school experience. Markayla told me of one student who struggled for weeks to find their place in the classroom, but within hours of being named Top Dog had, for the first time, raised their hand to answer math problems in class and after school took special time to email her pictures of their dog to share with the class. One opportunity to be seen and this student’s entire experience changed.

That is what Markayla’s classroom is all about. Making genuine connections with her students and their families, providing opportunities for her students to be leaders in and out of the classroom, and creating a classroom environment that completely changes a student’s outlook on school and the possibilities they have within it. One look at the magic she has created at Pikeville Elementary and it is clear that Markayla is the real Top Dog.

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.