FAU Alum Named Central Region High School Beginning Teacher of the Year

Kelly Thomas named Central Region High School 2020-21 Beginning Teacher of the Year

by Teresa Crane | Wednesday, Mar 10, 2021

Florida Atlantic University alum Kelly Thomas named Central Region High School 2020-21 Beginning Teacher of the Year. As a reading teacher at John I. Leonard High School, she has led her ninth grade reading class tooutperform the rest of the ninth grade reading students by 8% according to the Winter Diagnostic test. Thomas graduated from the College of Education’s department of Exceptional Student Education Honors-in-the-Major program in Spring 2020 and plans to complete a doctorate program in the future.

Ms. Thomas responded to the following Q&As pertaining to her accomplishment and her role as a teacher.

There are many struggles in a teacher's first year. Describe your biggest victory in the classroom this year:

The true measure of a teacher is the success of his/her students. Being a first-year teacher is a challenge. Throw in a dash of a global pandemic, a sprinkle of hybrid teaching, and a touch of teenage angst and I knew, from the start, this would be a first year like no other. After seeing my students outperform the other 9th grade Intensive Reading students by 5% on our first diagnostic assessment, I realized they were up for the challenge and that I needed to find more ways to engage my students with positive affirmations. Our students are capable of much more success than they often realize about themselves. It was my role to help them see their success and guide them to their highest abilities. Ultimately, they followed this opening performance by continuing to outperform other Intensive Reading students by 6% and 7.5% on our next set of assessments. Every one of my classes has the same goal for every student: no matter where you start the year, be better than you were yesterday and my students continued to accomplish that goal with every measurement. By the time Winter Diagnostics rolled around, they were absolutely motivated to give it their very best. With a student participation rate of just over 90%, 5-8% higher than the rest of other 9th grade Reading classes, my students tackled the Winter Diagnostic and achieved their greatest success to date; they outperformed the rest of the 9th grade reading students by 8%. To have the largest classes and among the highest percentage of students classifying as low 25%, and still watch my students climb a mountain and succeed, shows there are no obstacles too challenging when you know you can achieve anything. My student's continued success is, by far, my greatest victory this year.

Describe some professional learning (training, conference, book, research, etc.) you participated in and how it led to your growth:

While attending Florida Atlantic University, I served as the student mentor for the Office of Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (OURI) for the College of Education. In 2020, I was named Undergraduate Researcher of the Year due to my investigations into the correlation between low literacy rates and the school to prison pipeline. The research I have been involved in revolves around the impact of culture on students identified as at risk for emotional/behavioral disorder diagnosis. This is an important topic that is currently impacting the state of education, the justice system, and the special needs community. My passion for these topics has not ceased since graduation. In fact, being in an Intensive Reading classroom at a Title 1 school with a 78% minority population has only made me yearn for more answers on how to support our students. The professional development I attend is specifically chosen with the ideas of better understanding the impact culture has on education and how to bridge gaps in student achievement between all demographics. Recently, I attended the Future of Education Technology Conference with the objective to improve student engagement and provide ways for students to participate with limited resources. My primary objective will always be to understand how every teacher can make a difference in the lives of students who are statistically destined to a future filled with obstacles that the average individual may never face. These students are much more than a statistic and far more capable of success than society often gives credit. These professional development experiences have fueled my passion to bring innovative teaching into my classroom as these students face the most challenging environment to impact public education.

Relationship building with students is critical to student engagement and success. How have you built relationships with students this year?

Our classrooms can be more of a safe place than the homes and neighborhoods of some students. Understanding and embracing the challenges and responsibility that go along with that knowledge is how I have built strong relationships with students. I teach much like I parent. I instill in my students a thirst for knowledge by modeling my own approach to learning and understanding that we are all unique learners. If we learn together and work towards a common goal (to be better than we were yesterday), then we face the challenges as a team and succeed together. Open communication is one of the most important characteristics of my classroom. I ask them questions and encourage students to share their perspectives through their assignments and throughout class. These questions encompass all topics that range from heartfelt to student interests to just being silly. I ask about their state of mind, what is new in their life, is there anything they want me to know and thought-provoking questions like, "If you found a penguin living in your freezer what would you do?" I consider every response and seriously respond to the ones that need attention. Those responses come in many forms via email, in person, or a specialized note. We laugh together and we embrace the journey of learning together. I make mistakes and show them it is okay to make mistakes, even desirable. I learn in front of them every day and let them teach me while I teach them. I am not young. I am not trendy. I do not understand many of the phrases or words used in their casual conversation. I am able to show them the parallel of my learning to them not understanding something as obscure as figurative language. Instead of shying away and telling them to speak more professionally or forcing them to code-switch, I ask them what they think it means. I include them directly in the learning process. We take time every day to exchange new ideas and teach and learn from each other. I make sure they know that they are in a safe and loving environment. A place where they can explore the wonders of their curiosity and learn to succeed by developing their strengths and using their interests. We all have rough days. We also have incredible days that are worth celebrating and cherishing. I build relationships with my students by treating them as people who are worthy of love, respect, and capable of changing the world if they believe in themselves the way I believe in them.

Kelly Thomas was a nontraditional student who cared for her family while serving as an officer for the Student Council for Exceptional Children organization and a mentor for the FAU Office of Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (OURI). While at FAU, she received the award for the College of Education Undergraduate Researcher of the Year, as well as the department of Exceptional Student Education’s Outstanding Undergraduate Student of the Year. Kelly continues to shine in her current teaching role. Watch her shine: Kelly Thomas on Twitter: "So honored and humbled! Thank you so much. I wouldn't be the teacher I am without my leadership, my mentors, and most importantly, my awesome students!! 🖤🧡🖤🧡" / Twitter