Noelle: I want to ask you about being one of the four finalists for National Teacher of the Year. What is something that you got to experience from that, that will forever be a part of who you are as a teacher?
Kelly: I actually got the call that I was a national finalist in class, and I thought it was a telemarketer or one of those spammer calls.
I actually had one of my former students with me, she was helping out on her specialist period. And I was like, “Answer the phone,” because they kept calling. And I had it on speakerphone and it was actually CCSSO (Council of Chief State School Officers). So I had to quickly switch gears because I really had no idea who it was because they kept calling. And I was so glad and so honored and so humbled.
I almost started crying in the middle of class, but it was secret. It was embargoed. I couldn't say anything at the time. I was only 28 years old when I was first told I was a finalist. And for me, that was so powerful because of just my entire experience. I remember like, being that girl in eighth grade who was put in ISS for talking too much and talking back, which is part of why I'm passionate about student voice and advocacy now, about building student voice.
I say that because it just opened up so many doors. The Washington Wizards and Monumental Education honored me at halftime. And they gave me an award during Black History Month as their black history hero. Coming out in half court at the Verizon arena was just so powerful.
Being able to have my students though—there are so many exciting things that happened, you know. Being able to speak on a panel, at the Congressional Black Caucus, and going to Google. There are so many awesome, exciting things, but it was really cool to have my students see themselves as the students of the year.
You know, they made little shirts, they got those white Hanes shirts that you can get from Target or Walmart and they decorated them with “Student of the Year” and just really made a huge deal about it. Former students came back and called me, they heard about on the radio, they saw in the newspaper.
One of my students, from my very first class in D.C., who I had lost touch with, she and her mom called. And I was so touched because at the time they had lived in transitional living and I had no idea what happened to them. And for her to still remember me five years later and call, that was really powerful.
I loved being in the cohort with all of the amazing teachers, and being a finalist really forced me to be extra reflective in my practice. Because when you go to do your final parts, you really reach into the depths of who you are as a teacher. And I think that it really shifted and just made me more aware of the intentionality that has to go into your teaching.
It also kind of reenergized me because at the time, to be honest, I was not really sure what I wanted to do next in terms of education.
It was actually my PTA president at the time, Rose Shelton, who nominated me for the D.C. Teacher of the Year. I always thank her because I had never really heard of the Teacher of the Year program. I wasn't really aware of the national program, I wasn't really aware of any of it. So ever since she nominated me, my life has never been the same.
Noelle: I know you also got to work with Rodney Robinson.
Kelly: Rodney is one of the people that I'm probably closest to of the cohort, given our shared identity as African Americans and black folks as finalists, but also just our passions about the school-to-prison pipeline.
I actually talked to him early this morning. It's funny that you mentioned that. He's awesome. And so were the other four finalists. We actually got to bond a lot when we came to D.C. for the final interview. Donna [Gradel] is amazing. Her story is amazing. I know that you spoke with her earlier for her podcast, and Danielle [Riha]—just her passions for native learners.
The entire teacher cohort is phenomenal, but I couldn't have asked for a better cohort, a finalist to share that journey with because it's a really unique and intense journey. It's a lot scrutiny on you and a lot of attention. It's very new, especially for teachers because, as you mentioned earlier, we're not really used to the spotlight often. That definitely was an adjustment, to be able to interact with education on a national landscape and having folks listen to your perspectives.
Noelle: You have mentioned a few times being really aware and passionate and looking to make a difference on the school-to-prison pipeline. For anybody who's looking to be more educated in that, what would be your advice as to where to begin and what statistics to look at, and how to get involved in looking at that legislation and changes that we might be able to become advocates for?
Kelly: I would first recommend reading by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, which came out several years ago, but it really highlights and it goes really in depth into the U.S. prison system and how it shifted from earlier in mid-century until now and how we have astronomical rates of mass incarceration, particularly for folks of color, and how that's impacted schools and how it's impacted communities. So that's an excellent read.
I also would recommend reading Dr. Monique Morris's book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. That book transformed how I taught. And as a black woman, and a black woman who I thought was very aware of my identity and my place in space in the classroom, I realized that I, inadvertently, was contributing in some ways to systemic oppression, in terms of enforcing a dress code, or, “You must have this color hair, or you must do this and must do that.” Or just other things of how different practices that we have in schools can lead to and contribute to pushing out our girls of color. And that was such a powerful, powerful text. And I highly, highly recommend that because we hear all of our students are important. From all backgrounds. However, our African American girls do not get the attention that they deserve in terms of how the education is being shaped here in America. And I think that was a critical book.
In terms of local legislation, I think it's very important to be, first of all, well-versed in the policies that affect juveniles. I'm passionate about juvenile education because I'm actually in training now to be a girl scout leader here with the DJJ, the Department of Juvenile Justice, here in Atlanta, because I know that there's always a second chance and a third chance. And I believe in the power of redemption. It's important to understand, what are the current laws and legislation. So going to your county's website or your district or parish or wherever you are, their legislation website, and actually reading the legislation related to juvenile justice or related to education systems, understanding how your schools are funded and what the differences are there.
And one of the things I think is important is that you actually go to the school board meetings or the state school board meetings. You read the decisions that are created for your work as an educator or as a parent or as a student. That's critical. Being aware of opportunities to testify as well. Getting out to listservs and following them on social media, following them in terms of the email listservs, is important because we have a voice as educators.
That's one of the reasons I was really passionate about the platform of Teacher of the Year: to empower educators to not just understand it, but [also to show] ways that they can help inform and influence. If there are teacher advisory committees and councils, apply for those. I was a Teach Plus policy fellow in D.C.—they don't have it in every single state, but they have it in several states. That was helpful to understand how policy works, [and it] was foundational in me understanding how policy goes from concept to execution.