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 Imperfect Classroom is all about finding teachers who do incredible things in their classrooms and create spaces where kids just want to be. Almost without fail, when these teachers are approached and told that they have been noticed and recommended as an incredible teacher, the response is some version of “not me, I am just an ordinary teacher.” Whether it is humility, a general lack of acknowledgement in the profession, or imposter syndrome, it is usually a sign that you have found someone doing something special.

So when I reached out to Charlene Martin of Paintsville Independent about visiting her classroom in eastern Kentucky and her first response was “I don’t think I do anything ‘magical’… it seems many younger teachers have this flair that I don’t necessarily have,” I knew I had found someone special. In fact, when you ask her students, they’ll tell you that she is the opposite of ordinary. That what she does in the classroom is unlike anyone else, something many of them were not ready for when they first learned of her in middle school.

Before they get to her English class junior year, most students hear about an unrelenting, business-only teacher; as they put it, they hear about the “boogeyman” of Paintsville High School.

Charlene Martin and Kevin Dailey pose for a photo

Charlene Martin and Kevin Dailey

Most of the younger students are nervous about her class because they know that it is serious business. Charlene emphasizes the importance of college and post-secondary education. Not in the sense that everyone has to attend college or university, but that every one of her students should have that opportunity available to them.

For that to happen, they have to be ready. And when they go through her junior English class, her ACT prep, and her individual tutoring, they are ready (side note: I have never seen someone so genuinely passionate and excited about ACT prep as Charlene). Charlene considers herself ‘old school’ because of her love of the content and of literature. Some of her favorite moments as a teacher are not big and flashy, but in the individual classes where students lose track of time because they are lost in a story. She embraces the fact that she may not always be the “cool” teacher and that her class is genuinely difficult. What matters for Charlene is that students are building a foundation for their future lives, whatever they may be.

When these same students who heard about the boogeyman get to her class, that idea almost instantly goes away. What 8th graders see as intimidating, and Charlene sees as old school, I see as a deep and genuine love for the profession of teaching and the students in her care. I see brilliance that is impossible to ignore.

Another quality that makes Charlene so special is in her ability to teach any class, big or small. While she has experience teaching in larger school districts, she says her heart is in the smaller schools, like Paintsville High School. Charlene knows every junior by name, which allows her to talk about their interests, which book they are reading, what they enjoy in their free time, all of which seep into each and every lesson in her classroom.

Charlene has a distinct ability to teach her subject at an extraordinarily high level and still earn the admiration and love of her students. One of her former students said that “even though she’s the toughest teacher I have ever had, I loved her class. It pushed me.” Even in a small sample, I am fortunate to have witnessed Charlene inspiring her students through her love of teaching, literature, and her small little part of the world. So next time you hear someone say something like, “They don’t know what makes them so special,” I’d encourage you to think of Charlene Martin and to keep your eye on them, you may just find something truly magical.