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.

Whether it is survival or egotism, most people perceive themselves, and their actions, as important beyond their actual influence and reality. Whatever it is that we choose to spend our time doing in any given moment is the thing that carries the most importance. Most of the time, this allows us to focus and specialize in a way that does the greatest good. But occasionally, it clouds our reality and blinds us to the bigger picture. In Kentucky, we might say some witty old aphorism like “you can’t see the forest for the trees.” I would argue that without something forcing us to see the bigger picture, most of us operate in this way in our personal and professional lives.

We see this every day in the world of education. As a social studies teacher, I could go on for days about the superiority of the humanities to the development of a well-rounded citizen. For a science teacher, the future of our planet is wholly dependent on our understanding of the natural world and our place within it. The trend persists. On occasion, however, you will find a teacher who can shed the blinders of disciplinary self-importance that often plagues educational spaces. One such teacher is Chris Thompson of Pendleton County High School.

I first met Chris as a colleague at Gallatin County High School years ago. Chris taught the wide range of agriculture classes available, as well as a sponsor for the Future Farmers of America (FFA) club at the school, and man was he impressive. From the moment he walked into that school, his presence was felt well outside of his dynamic and captivating classroom. Chris took pride in his position as an agriculture teacher – and still does – but he did so without the pretense of inflated self-importance that so many fall victim to.

A man sits and smiles with a rodent on his shoulder

Chris Thompson, Pendleton County High School

In recent years, Chris made his way home to Pendleton County High School and built an agriculture program that is a true reflection of his community and an embodiment of the FFA motto that he teaches his students: “Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, Living to Serve.” If you have never been a part of or witnessed an ag teacher in action, you are missing out, especially one of Chris’s classes. Somehow, he is asked to teach courses that range from animal science to horticulture to metal fabrication and so much more (“learning to do”). On top of the practical knowledge and skills he teaches (“doing to learn”), he has standards for business development, communication, and professionalism that prepare his students for what comes next as they graduate high school (“earning to live”). Throughout all of this, Chris models and explicitly promotes individual pursuits of interest as a method of service to his community (“living to serve”).

Despite how extraordinary it is that Chris is able to do all of these things, I am most impressed by his approach to drawing out excellence in his students and colleagues. While I am certain there are many ways to reach the same outcome, Chris’s methods are empowering to everyone around him. When you walk into his classroom, there is vibrance and activity, but very little stress. One of his students remarked that “even though he is chill and relaxed, he holds you accountable for what you do.” Another student added that “he really cares about us and he lets us speak our minds.”

I was most impressed by the fact that his sense of calm was contagious and carried over to his students. Many of his students were preparing for upcoming FFA competitions, which would normally be an extremely stressful time, but Chris’s example and support allowed them to slow down and focus on the task at hand without getting overwhelmed. One of his colleagues told me that is just the way he is, “he makes seemingly impossible situations seem funny, light, and possible.” I am blown away by this calm in the face of adversity.

The job of a teacher is of supreme importance, of that I have no doubt. In recent years, the focus of education has shifted in funding and narrative, whether it is renewed passion for the arts, an increased focus on STEM, or the appeal for skills more applicable for the workforce. Moving forward, I would love it if we could resist the temptation of thinking that any one of these things are more important than the other and really, they are just trivial comparisons. What really matters are our students. I hope that we can take a lesson from Chris and stop sweating the small stuff.

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 the 2024 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.