9 Questions For National Teacher of the Year Finalist Kelly Harper
The Teach for America alum and D.C. Teacher of the Year winner talks about partnering with families and advocating for policy changes from the classroom.
Kelly Harper, a 2012 Houston alum, was recently named the 2019 District of Columbia Teacher of the Year, and is one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year. Kelly currently teaches third grade at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Washington, D.C., not far from where her family has lived for generations, and where she yearned to serve after her time in the corps.
Kelly is a former Teach Plus policy fellow, a highly selective program for educators interested in shaping policies that impact high-needs students. She was also a 2014 Sue Lehmann Excellence in Teaching Award Houston finalist and national nominee.
On a recent Friday, while leading her students to lunch in the cafeteria, Kelly took some time to discuss her work and some of the big issues impacting education.
How has your role as a teacher evolved over the seven years you’ve been in the classroom?
I've learned more about educating the whole child and understanding the child as a person. Before, I was so focused on just content. Content is critical. However, it's important that our students also have social-emotional learning and support. I've also evolved in terms of helping students make connections between what they are learning and how they can use it in their community.
Second, I've learned it's so important that you partner with families, and always assume the best intent. I always let parents know that I know you as parents; mom, dad, grandma, or whoever you are, you are the first educator for this child, you are the expert on this child. I want to partner with you to figure out what we can do to help your child meet and exceed their goals. I think that's one of the biggest things that helps to move the needle for students and to help communities and families.
How do you emphasize involving families in your students' education?
I've been a family engagement leader for several years, where I coach teachers on ways to connect with families. I've helped train teachers, both at my school and across the district, on how to do home visits, and how to use the home visit as a tool for learning about their students and their families.
Studies show that students who receive home visits and additional teacher-school partnering have increased academic outcomes. Before we can get to conversations about a student's data or test scores, there has to be that foundation of trust. Home visits help to build that relationship.
What have you learned about your students from your home visits?
With the home visits, you're getting to see where the child lives every day, and what their passions are. One of my students was very reluctant to read. When I did the home visit, I saw that he had all these Legos and cars and hands-on items. I realized he was very interested in building things. So I said, “Let's check out some books that are related to that.” That student went from being a reluctant reader to loving to read. From there, he expanded the genres he wanted to read and realized he wants to be a civil engineer.
A lot of times you ask families and students to come to the school, come to the classroom, come to the table. But when I'm sitting on a family’s couch, I'm in their space. It's a way to humble yourself and say, "I want to learn from you. What can I do to best educate your child?"
What are some ways that you have incorporated culturally relevant teaching in your classroom?
It starts with learning about your students’ community. I asked a couple of parents to share some of the cultural treasures that are part of the community. There's a community garden, a corner store where everyone gets their snacks, different barbershops. Embedding those things into the classroom is important.
I found it's also critical to explore a variety of texts. In addition to providing exposure to diverse backgrounds that students can learn from, students also have to see themselves in the text. For example, one of the texts we read was from Harlem by Walter Dean Myers. When students learned how the families in Harlem were living, they were like, "Wow, that's like us."
Students have to be active participants in their education and feel as if it means something. Every year I take my students to Howard University, which is a couple of miles away and has been a mecca for generations in D.C., where students come to see older students on a college campus who look like them. It's the most beautiful thing when their eyes grow so big as they look at students who are “their future selves,” as they say. This helps create a visible road to success and to show them, "Here's why what we do in third-grade matters."
Do you think you'll stay in the classroom?
I definitely want to continue teaching for a few more years. However, my ultimate goal is to be the United States Secretary of Education. The fact that my educational experience and the experience of my cousins in D.C. were so vastly different and we're only about 20 minutes away from each other—that is not acceptable. But this is happening still across the nation.
I want to continue honing my craft because I feel that we have to have folks at the table who truly understand and have real on-the-ground experience with our students. However, I do know that we need folks in all arenas in order to enact change.
Why have you chosen to remain in teaching rather than working in another field that is addressing inequity?
Originally, I wanted to be an attorney. I thought this was how I could dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. But after I interned at the prosecutor’s office in Maryland and at the Southern Center for Human Rights while in college, I noticed there were so many clients who were functionally illiterate. I thought, "What if we had prior support then that could have prevented this?" I wanted to unlock that door. That's how I came across Teach For America.
My plan was to teach for two years and then go to law school. But then I got into the classroom and realized there's so much work to be done. I’m still in this field because I know that our students need consistency. And as a Teach Plus policy fellow, I'm able to enact policy changes while having a voice in the classroom. We advocated for social-emotional learning training for teachers. We now have a professional development program in place because of our advocacy work. That's what I want more educators to understand—that you can still make amazing changes while in the classroom.
If you had the power to change one policy that is impacting education right now, what would that be?
The way we're funding our schools needs to change. I think we need to start from the drawing board and shift how our schools are funded and how we support our most struggling schools because it's evident that what has been done is not working.
In one of our schools that serves our most vulnerable students, there's a higher risk of absenteeism. There are additional social-economic challenges. In order to truly equalize the playing field, there has to be funding to ensure that the community has what they need to be successful.
What advice would you share with people who are interested in becoming teachers?
The biggest thing is to build intentional relationships with your students and their families. We want our students to feel like their classroom is their home away from home. It's essential that we figure out ways to get to know our students on the individual level and use that knowledge about their strengths and their areas for growth in the classroom. When we build intentional relationships, that's a foundation. Once you do that, the content will come. Content is much easier when you have that strong relationship.
Do you feel like teachers are valued in our culture, and if not, what keeps you going?
In my particular district, they've done a lot of work to provide very competitive pay and professional development opportunities for teachers. But when I hear that some teachers are making only $5,000 or $10,000 more than they started making 20 years ago, that's disheartening. It shouldn't be that teachers need to have multiple jobs in order to make their ends meet. Our educators are professionals. That's something I'm very passionate about, especially when it comes to recruiting and retaining teachers of color because we’re still not where we need to be.
I don't think that we have all the respect, but I do believe some of the best encouragement I’ve received is from the kids and parents. When I get thank-you notes from parents or when I see other colleagues who are able to take a student who is really struggling to the next level—that is what keeps me going.
Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.