November 21, 2023

American Education Week Address 2023


When I retired from the military, I could have gone to work for several different defense contractors, but God called me to become a teacher. I remember my first year as a teacher, and teaching was a whirlwind because I’m not a trained educator.

I was taking classes at night to learn the pedagogy of how to teach students while still teaching students all day. One of my students said this to me, and I’ll never forget this; he said, “Miss,” now I’m not sure why students, you can’t remember our names. When I had 175 students, I knew their names. I’m just saying, students, take time to learn your teacher’s name. Their name is important to them, just like yours is.

He said, “Miss, is it true that the trashmen make more than teachers?” And I said, yes, it is. And he said, “Well, why did you become a teacher?” And I said, don’t you deserve the best person to teach you how to think? Because that’s what science does; it teaches you how to think. I love all the English, the math, the social studies teachers, but science makes the world go around. He said, “Well, yes.” And I said, well, I’m the best. So that’s why I’m your teacher.

But there’s a more significant point in that story. The more substantial issue is that my retirement checks from the United States military paid me more than I received as a first-year teacher. Yet, we trust our educators with the most precious gift we have in life: our children.

So, as we enter education week, remember to honor our educators’ sacrifices and commitment because they are not well paid for their work. So, it would be best if you asked why they do it. It’s for the same reason that veterans served. It is to be of service and a servant, to shape and influence the future by creating the next generation of leaders. That’s what we do as educators.

Most people do not think about the impact of educators on their lives, their teachers, and their children’s lives. But I could ask you a question today, and each of you could tell me one favorite teacher that you had. It doesn’t matter how old you are; you can remember that teacher. One of me was Ms. Walker. She was my fifth-grade teacher. What you probably can’t tell about me today from standing up here is the Kim you see today; that wasn’t Kim in fifth grade.

In elementary school, Kim was a little rambunctious, maybe a little busy, smart, but didn’t channel her intelligence in the right direction. So, I was always the student who would get my work done fast and correctly, but then I would go and distract everybody else. I’d keep everybody from getting their work done. And then, when the teacher asked about it, I’d raise my hand, give the answers, and make myself look good.

Now, most of my teachers, up to that point, would fuss at me, but not Ms. Walker. Ms. Walker challenged me. She moved my desk, and she put me next to her. She made me her assistant and gave me duties. So, she structured my energy, and she challenged me. She gave me purpose and told me I could do more than what I was doing.

Each of you has a story about a teacher who did that for you. Well, our teachers today are continuing to do that. Everyone who works in the school district is there for a purpose. Everyone is a teacher because kids look at you, watch you, respect you, and value you. They listen to you. You can change that child’s life.

Research shows that if a child has one caring adult, just one, and it doesn’t have to be a parent, the chances of that child graduating go up 60%. Think about that 60%. Why is that so important? It is important because a high school diploma is the key to unlocking the gate of opportunity. Without it, that child will struggle their entire life, which means their children will probably struggle, which means their children will struggle. This is how we get into that generational trap of poverty and lack. It starts with one caring adult.

In my current district, our core values are belonging, learning, continuous improvement, and joy. Well, you heard in my bio that my grandchildren bring me joy. We now have our seventh grandchild. She was born two weeks ago. Ms. Martina, if I were to show you a picture of Martina, you would say she has the brightest eyes. And they were wide open for the picture. And I told my daughter-in-law and my son that Martina wasn’t born. Martina arrived.

Because she has turned their world upside down, but that is the joy of parenthood. They don’t see it as joy. I do because, as a grandmother, I give my grandchildren all those wonderful things their parents don’t want them to have. They might want drum sets, candy, and new shoes their parents say they don’t need. I do all those little things like that and then drop them back at their house.

So, being a grandmother brings me joy, but it also brings me great joy to lead my school district. It brings me joy because I get to work with a great team of professionals who set the conditions for success for our students. You see, our core values are how we create the conditions for success. So, it starts with belonging.

Why belong? Because every child that comes into our buildings should feel like they belong in school. Now that means they bring with them a whole lot of different things. Some of them bring a lot of traumas, a lot of pain, a lot of hurt, a lot of confusion. They come tired, they come hungry, they come sick, but they come. Why do they come? Because it’s a place where they meet caring adults who care for them.

Students should feel like they belong in school. They should be excited to come to school. They should want to go to school. And that starts with creating a safe and caring environment. We are not there to judge kids for their choices, their living conditions, or the circumstances they come out of. That is not our place. We are there to serve, to wrap our arms around them, and to make them feel safe so they can learn. That’s why belonging is so important.

Learning is more than just reading books, doing math, learning science, and learning how to write. Learning is about how we think. So, we must have diversity of thought in our classrooms. We must teach our kids how to think critically. We must teach our students how to advocate appropriately for the things they believe in and for themselves. Learning is an inclusive term because it considers a child’s holistic aspects.

Everyone in a school district is a teacher because students learn from that bus driver. They learn from the bookkeeper, they learn from the registrar, they learn from the administrator, and, of course, they learn from their teachers. But some of the best lessons are taught by our custodians and our food service personnel because everyone is there to serve our children. We are all teachers.

While I’m not in the classroom daily, I would love to be there. I’m still a teacher because the decisions that I make determine the outcomes of our students. So learning is not just reading, writing, and what we used to say, arithmetic. It is how to be a good citizen and a good person in conjunction with our parents.

So, parents, you’re not off the hook. We need your children in school on time, prepared to learn, and you are supporting them. I was a high school principal when I would do an orientation with my ninth-grade parents. Here’s what I would tell them. Your children are going to say, I’m in high school now. I need more freedom, and you should give me less control. I should be able to make some decisions on my own, and I should have more flexibility and freedom. The answer to those parents is no. This is the time for you to put that foot on that pedal harder because this is the critical time in your children’s lives when they begin to form the identity they will take with them beyond high school.

GPA starts the first day they walk into high school, and it is hard to pull up when you have it very low, and it’s hard to pull down when it’s very high. Just because someone is in high school does not mean they have a right to drive. It is a privilege. It is a privilege to go hang out with your friends. Doing other things you want is a privilege, and I am not discouraging that. What I want students to understand is a motto we had at our house. You must do the things you must do first, and then you get to do what you want to do. That’s how life works.

So that’s learning continuous improvement. We are always looking at how we get better. How do we meet our children where they are today? How do we do better to serve our staff and our employees? Continuous improvement also means we look at ourselves, reflect on what we do every day, and ask ourselves if we did the best we could do. And if we didn’t, what would we do the next day differently? We want to teach that skill to our students also because, for us in education, we want students to move through what we call productive struggle. Better known as failing forward. But you can’t fail forward if you’re not willing to reflect.

Even as adults, we fail forward. I make lots of mistakes. I have been known to apologize publicly for my mistakes. Somebody said to me, why would you do that? An adult asked me that. Not a student, an adult asked me, why would you publicly apologize? No one needed to know. My response was that I learned as a brand new second lieutenant to lead by example. I cannot expect others to do things I’m unwilling to do.

So, I hold my staff accountable. I must start by holding myself accountable, which means I make a mistake if I do something wrong. I own it. I ask for forgiveness, and I endeavor to make continuous improvements.

And last but not least, joy. I already said my grandchildren bring me joy. But what else brings me joy? It is working with students. I have some of the world’s most brilliant, talented, gifted young people in my school district. I get to meet with them when I visit schools, but I meet with the leadership of the high schools monthly.

If you have not taken the time to step into high schools and see what students are doing, especially during this season of gratitude in November and December when we celebrate Christmas, you’re missing it. They do remarkable things, support charities, and give their time and talent. They don’t have much treasure, but they’re going out and finding that treasure by exercising their voice. That brings me joy because, as I used to tell my children, I need you to grow up and be a contributing member of society so that I can collect my social security checks!

Let’s keep it real. When I get old, I’m going to need some money! I like to dress well. I like shoes. I like to travel, as you have heard, so I need some money. So, I need students to contribute to society because they are the leaders who will take over this world.

Students, your voice, and your leadership are needed. I told these high school leaders that if you don’t like how things are, use your voice and change it.

Do you know that you are Generation X and Generation Y, the largest population in the workforce today? So, they make up the majority of workers in today’s workforce. So, for us mature people who work with that millennial, we go, oh gosh! Yes, because that millennial is going to be your boss. And wouldn’t it be nice to know that we prepared that millennial to step into that leadership role? That’s our job. That brings me joy. I love it. I love spending time with our students so that we can raise the next generation of leaders.

In the book of Esther, we learn about Esther’s role and Esther’s purpose. Esther was an orphan raised by her uncle. She was brought into the king’s harem. And you would say that doesn’t sound like a good story, but it is. Let me tell you why it’s a good story because God had a purpose. See, he tells us He knew us before we were formed in our mother’s womb, that we all have a purpose that he gave us.

So, what was Esther’s purpose? Her purpose was to save the Jews. How was she to do that? Her uncle raised her, brought her into the king’s harem, found favor with the king, and became the queen. And when he asked her what was troubling her, she advocated and saved the Jews. That was her purpose.

I want to leave you with homework because I’m an educator, first and foremost.

Here’s the first question I have for you: What is your purpose?

You see, my purpose is to educate. That’s my purpose. That’s why God called me not to work for a defense contractor, making lots of money so I could buy more shoes, dresses, and jewelry. But to be a teacher.

Here’s your second question: How will you use your purpose to serve others?

Two questions. What is your purpose, and how will you use your purpose to serve others?

We are the body of Christ. We’ve all been given different gifts and different talents. Some of us are the mouth, some are the hands, and some are the feet. Right? We all have a role to play.

So, what is your purpose, and how will you use it to serve others?


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own and do not represent those of my employer or any local, state, or federal government.

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About the author

I'm Kim, your Educational Leadership Guide. I equip educational leaders with research-based and experientially learned educational leadership principles and best practices to promote student success.