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Teacher of the Year on Turning a School Around

ED GORDON, host:

Did you ever have a teacher that made a difference in your life? Kimberly Oliver did. And now, she's that teacher for hundreds of children in Silver Spring, Maryland. She teaches kindergarten at Broad Acres Elementary School and this year, she's been named National Teacher of the Year. Over the last six years, Oliver helped turn around the underperforming school, as she says, despite the obstacles of poverty, race, language and mobility.

Ms. Oliver told me the recognition has been exhilarating.

Ms. KIMBERLY OLIVER (Kindergarten Teacher, Broad Acres Elementary School, Silver Spring, Maryland; National Teacher of the Year, 2006): It has been a very exciting time as well as a huge honor for me to be named National Teacher of the Year.

GORDON: There are those who suggest that we have paid little or no attention to teachers, in terms of trying to bolster what they deal with on a day-to-day basis. Has it been your attempt, through what you are gaining because of this award, to remind people that you're there in the trenches everyday and need help?

Ms. OLIVER: I think it is that teachers are absolutely one of the hardest working group of people that we have in this country and that, sometimes, there is very little recognition for the work that we do on a daily basis. Me receiving this award brings recognition to all teachers. And I'm accepting it on behalf of all of my colleagues who are working each and every day, making a difference in the lives of our children.

GORDON: Have you always wanted to be an educator?

Ms. OLIVER: I have always wanted to be a teacher, ever since I was a little girl. I had a daycare teacher who inspired me. And I really wanted to emulate her and be like her. And so I knew from around 4 or 5 years old that I wanted to teach people.

GORDON: What was it that she did that was so impactful?

Ms. OLIVER: She really made me feel special. She helped to boost my confidence and my self-esteem. She was the person who taught me how to read. And just that close relationship that I had with her and that she had with my family, as well, was really important to me.

GORDON: Now you teach kindergarten, which is a very delicate age, in terms of being able to teach learning, but also to teach life skills for these young people.

Ms. OLIVER: Absolutely. I love teaching kindergarten. My students are wonderful. They come to school open and excited and ready to learn. And I think I have an opportunity to help build a strong foundation for them.

GORDON: How do we keep that excitement going? Unfortunately, particularly in the African-American community - as you know better than most, I would suspect - there starts to be this idea of education not being fun anymore, not being important anymore to many kids.

Ms. OLIVER: I think we just have to keep things fresh and exciting. We can still teach the concepts that students need to know, but we need to find engaging ways to do that. Find things that they're interested in. I think technology helps to play a role in that, as well.

GORDON: I know one of the things that has been written and talked about, in terms of what you've been able to do is not only find a way to show the importance of education for your students, but also to engage and incorporate parents in all of what you do.

Ms. OLIVER: I think it is so important that we involve parents in the educational process. Parents are, after all, their children's first teachers. And I tell them that they'll continue to teach their kid long after they leave my classroom. And if you have the support of a parent, anything is possible.

GORDON: There are teachers who really see it as a paycheck and that's it. But you've gone well above all that, including writing grants to purchase many things that are needed, including books within your classroom. What has provided you that extra motivation?

Ms. OLIVER: You know, I think for any dedicated teacher, that it really is a love for children and a love for learning. And so I bring my love for these two things into the classroom with me every day. I know that I'm a role model for my students. And so I try to be excited about learning, be excited about learning new things. And I find that they follow me on that as well.

GORDON: How much do you - do you, I should say, get angry when you hear all of the platitudes our society gives to kids - the children are our future, they're our most important resource - yet, when you really look around, that does not seem to be the case.

Ms. OLIVER: You know, I think that the children are our future, but they're also our today, as well. And so that we have to work on a daily basis knowing that even as children, that they're valuable members of our society and that they're still contributing, and that we need to invest in them continuously.

GORDON: Why have we lost that, seemingly? There does not seem to be the same vested interest in young people today across the board as there used to be.

Ms. OLIVER: I believe that we really need to look at children as children. Although they need to learn and achieve certain academic standards and goals, they also need to have fun. They need to play and learn through playing. And they need to interact with their peers. I think sometimes we try to make children into miniature adults and don't let them enjoy their childhood. And that's really what I like to see my students do, is enjoy their childhood and be a child.

GORDON: Talk to me about some of the programs that you've put together. I know one of the programs that you've put together is called Books and Supper Night.

Ms. OLIVER: Right. My colleagues and I really find it important that literacy and literature be a part of the home life. And so we find ways to help parents engage in academic activities. And one of the things that we've done is to invite our parents to school four times a year for a Book and Supper Night.

And we allow the parents to listen to their children read books that they've been working on in class and to really see the pride. And the child is very happy that the parent can see the progress that they're making.

And it's showing them the importance of reading at home or giving them specific questions that they can ask when they're reading a book, and different strategies that they can use with their child at home. And it's also emphasizing the importance of the community, as well. We have a community dinner and we give books so that the children can have their very own books in their home, as well.

GORDON: Now, while they're still young, I suspect your kids could put their arms around the idea of their teacher winning an award. What did they say when you came back?

Ms. OLIVER: They were very excited. They just hugged me and were overjoyed at the experience. And they kind of think they're a little bit famous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: Kimberly Oliver. She's the 2006 National Teacher of the Year. We say thank you and, more importantly, congratulations.

Ms. OLIVER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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