Kevin Dailey

Kevin Dailey, 2024 Kentucky Teacher of the Year

Over the course of the past few weeks, I have been a part of many incredible, unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. These events are so fresh in my mind that I haven’t even been able to fully process them, let alone see or understand their long-term impact. Already, I think if given the chance, I could talk about the events of those days for an entire lifetime: the experiences, the people, the feelings and emotions around them, the life lessons, I could actually go on forever. Since that is impractical and too much for anyone to listen to, I want to focus on a single part of the culminating event, the first-ever State Dinner honoring teachers at the White House. You read that correctly: the state teachers of the year were invited to dine with the First Lady of the United States, and fellow educator herself, Dr. Jill Biden (as I said in the opening statement… unbelievable).

But the story begins long before the dinner itself on May 2. We have to go back to the welcome address a week prior, delivered by 2019 National Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson, where he planted a seed of thought into my mind that I wasn’t expecting nor fully able to comprehend in that moment. Among his many words of wisdom, he said, “YOU (the state teachers of the year) are not the reason you are here.” Certainly a strange statement to make to a group of extraordinary professional educators. Nevertheless, he went on to explain that even though we are exactly where we are supposed to be, our journey here wasn’t entirely of our own making. This thought stayed in the front of my mind throughout every experience of the following week.

The truth Rodney helped me to confront is that I would not be where I am today were it not for a host of people along my journey. My family and friends, whose love and unconditional support has sustained me when things have been tough. My own teachers, whose dedication and belief in me during one of the most challenging times of my life allowed me to believe in myself. My colleagues, who have pushed and challenged me to keep moving forward. But most importantly, my students, who for over a decade have given me purpose, strength, and inspiration in more ways than can be named. Each of them helped me along in one way or another.

The next day brought about the chance to hear from yet another world class educator, 2010 National Teacher of the Year and coordinator for the state teachers of the year, Sarah Brown Wessling. More than any other person I’ve met, Sarah has the ability to know what you need before you know yourself, and as someone who has gone through these same experiences, she told a story of her meeting the president when she was named National Teacher of the Year in 2010. It was the exact story we needed. Without retelling someone else’s story, the moral was that we should be aware of who it is we are carrying into the spaces we occupy, from the ordinary to the incomprehensible, they are with us. Again, the words stuck. They meant something despite my lack of context to understand their meaning.

Fast forward to Thursday evening, when we were on our way to the White House to attend the historic State Dinner. From the outside, we looked ready. Each of us dressed in our finest clothes, adorned with little personal touches that showcased our profession, our state, and our personalities. We looked invincible. But inside, my mind was racing, and as it did, the words of wisdom from earlier in the week appeared again, only this time, they didn’t rattle in my mind, they came out.

Sitting across the aisle from me was 2024 Delaware Teacher of the Year Cory Hafer, which in hindsight was the perfect person. So I asked, “Cory, who are you carrying with you?” In the most truthful and vulnerable way, we both went on to name students, family members, and other folks that we were thinking about in the moment. This last conversation started to bring to focus the thoughts that were dominating my mind all week long. Then in an instant, we went from sitting at 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue waiting to depart the bus to the entrance of the East Room of the White House. There are a million memories between the two, but again, this story has one focus.

Once I entered that incredible dining room, I felt myself losing control. My heart fluttered, my mind raced, and I thought of all of the reasons why I shouldn’t be in that room; why I didn’t belong; why I wasn’t deserving of such an honor. Quickly, I looked into my hand at my seating card, I saw the number “15” and took a beeline to find my seat. Once I noticed the table, I saw a golden apple with the words “Kevin Dailey” sitting on the table, but I certainly did not feel like that was my place. Every negative thought, every doubt, every flaw, every failure flashed right in front of my eyes.

I pulled out the chair to take my seat and saw a glimpse of a book. I had never seen this book before, but I instantly knew what it was. It was Rodney’s words, “you are not the reason why you are here.” It was Sarah’s story, “who are you carrying with you?” As I lifted the book, it all made sense. All of the worries, the doubts, the failures that had dominated my senses parted and in their place were handwritten notes from my students. I took a deep breath and knew that no matter what I felt about my own presence in those hallowed halls, the people I carried with me, the people that brought me to that moment, they all deserved to be there. They belonged in that room. And it was my responsibility, my honor, to bring them with me. Those little notes of kindness gave me power, confidence, and a sense of belonging and purpose that I will never forget.

It’s pretty amazing, the power of kindness. What a nice note, a simple gesture, or a short reminder can do for a person. In my career as a teacher, I have saved every note, every email, every Post-it given by my students. I store them in a binder behind my desk. These notes mean the world to me. But this book of kindness is a constant reminder of the reason I am where I am today and of those that I carry with me. And that is a lesson I hope I never forget.