Q&A with Muscogee County School District 2013 Teacher of the Year Kim Lester of Britt David Magnet Academy

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMay 3, 2013 

During her acceptance speech Thursday night, when she was named the Muscogee County School District 2013 Teacher of the Year, Britt David Magnet Academy fifth-grade teacher Kim Lester recalled an inspiring memory from growing up in Gibsonton, Fla.

She entered the home office of her mother, a fourth-grade teacher before she died last year. Lester saw 28 blue ribbons her mother had made.

"Mom, what in the world are you doing?"

"They are ribbons for my kids."

"What? You give one to everyone?"

"That's my job, Honey. I find that ribbon moment for every single kid and celebrate it."

Whether it was the top speller, or the one who finally learned how to read, or the one who wrote an excellent essay, or the one who was just being kind to somebody, she made sure each of her students earned an award.

"And when I became a teacher," Lester said, "that became important to me -- very, very important to me -- to find those little blue-ribbon moments for my kids."

Friday morning, Lester was a blue-ribbon teacher with only a few hours of sleep but back at school as energetic as ever. She took time to sit down with the Ledger-Enquirer to discuss her views about public education. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As MCSD's Teacher of the Year, you will represent the district's teachers. What do you want to promote during your year in the spotlight?

I'm thinking in terms of really how the community can come together, supporting education and helping us find those little gold nuggets or ribbon kind of moments for our kids. How do we celebrate what our kids are able to do? That might be a way I could help. I also want to get the message out that teachers are really in this because we love our kids -- and to trust us with your kids' education. We know what we're doing. We want you to come in and be a part of things, but trust your teachers. We do this because we love them, and we only want what's best for them.

What are you most hopeful about in public education?

The teachers really want to make it work. We really want to focus on what our kids are doing. The undercurrent is to focus on the child. It's student-centered. It's not about textbooks anymore. It's not about worksheets. It's about helping your children to explore the world, to explore in the direction they want to go. … We're teaching kids to do jobs we've never seen, so we've got to help our kids understand, "You guys are going to be the discoverers of the future. You guys are the ones who are going to take this technology that we have and make it do amazing things." Sometimes, little people need to be given that trust. Tell them that they can do these things. They come up with the greatest inventions, things they want to try, and you can't look at them with a stigma. You need to look at them and go, "Whoa!" -- because it is "Whoa!" It's exciting to see what these little guys can come up with. You put a computer in their hands, and they will design the most amazing images using whatever technology you hand them, and we've got to give them that freedom.

What are you most concerned about in public education?

I think we get lost in test scores. I understand the purpose of test scores. We really do need them. But when it becomes the focus of our curriculum and our drive, we lose the kids. These kids in here are not a number on a test score. These kids are little people who grow and improve, and sometimes you don't see that in a test score. But it's OK; you don't need to. Test scores really should be used to help us modify our curriculum. Are we teaching what we need to be teaching? Are we teaching it effectively? Use those test scores to help us be better teachers, but don't be afraid to try things.

So what would be the ideal accountability system to measure teacher and school performance?

I don't think we've reach it yet. I'm a huge believer in portfolios (collections of students' work), but they are not always cost effective, and people on the outside of education don't understand them. We've got to come to some sort of happy medium where you can hand parents a really good report and explain to them exactly what their kids are learning, but we just don't have the assessment tool that really does that yet. I think we will. … I've taught in several different schools in this county, and I've seen a lot of hardships, and that sometimes is what's affecting their scores. They've got teachers that are wonderful, I mean wonderful, strong teachers, but those kids are not making the scores that my kids are here because my kids here have family backgrounds that are supportive, their parents are available to me at any time. I'm very spoiled here. The parents here are a driving force, and they're wonderful people. Now, some of the other (parents), they might not understand how to get involved in school. Maybe an outreach of that kind would help. … If parents had a bad time in school, they're going to be hesitant to come talk to us. Most of the parents here, I would say, have been very successful in school or successful people, so they come in confident and they want to talk to us. If you're at one of those schools that don't have those test scores, parents might have an instant defense mode. They can't help it. It's the way their life is, so we've got to find a way to reach out to them.

Both of your parents have been teachers, but you came to the teaching profession mid-career. You started as a journalist. What prompted you to become a teacher?

I became sort of an education reporter. The Tampa Tribune did an experimental page, … and they used baby reporters, fresh out of school. Their idea was to raise circulation to get more people's names and faces in the paper. I had the opportunity to go to a school (around 1992) where a teacher got a letter from the president. … I walked into this kindergarten classroom, and the environment was so warm. She had a giant rocking chair in the middle that all the kids had signed; it was the cutest thing that I'd ever seen. She wasn't just using the president's letter; the kids were reading the letter, and they were kindergartners -- kindergartners! I was blown away. They were so excited, and they did other little assignments off of the letter. … I ended up spending the entire day with that kindergarten class. The principal said, "Most reporters come in and out. You were here all day." I was like, "I was, wasn't I!" … I was one of those who said, "I'm not going to do what my parents do." I kind of fell into journalism, and I loved it. It was fun talking to people and writing stories. So now, as a teacher, I get to use my writing and journalism with my kids. We write. That's my passion. It's still a lot of fun, but they tell the stories now.

How do we attract more people to become teachers and how do we do a better job of retaining them?

We need to work on our teacher education, not just techniques, but get them in those classrooms and show them the relationships they can build with these kids. If you've got teachers who are building relationships, they're going to want to stay forever. These kids give as much and sometimes more than what they're given. There's just nothing better than this teacher-kid rapport that you develop. I think one way to keep them is that there is so much stress on teachers -- the test-score stress -- we need to find a way to back that off. I know first-year teachers who are in tears. There is so much to do. There's so much paperwork, and you have a hard time really remembering that you are here for these kids and to teach them. I tell (first-year teachers), if you can't get that done today, put it aside, work on your lesson and do what you enjoy about this job. This will get done. It's OK, as long as your kids are happy and performing. Happy kids perform well, and confident kids perform well, and they need a confident teacher who is happy to do that. We've got to show teachers that we do appreciate them, that they're not the banes of society who are causing all of these problems, because they're not. Oftentimes, I think we are used as scapegoats. There are better ways to go about it: encouraging great education, encouraging professional development. There are lots of great, new research out there showing different kinds of learning styles. … They give you great ideas that will stick. Allowing teachers the freedom to experiment with education and curriculum, allowing teachers confidence, that "we trust you. We trust that you know what you're doing. Go do it. Do what you do best. We'll back off now." … Empower teachers without testing and retesting, testing and retesting -- because, if you haven't had time to teach them, why are you assessing it?

If you were superintendent, what's the first change you would make in the school district?

There are some curriculum ideas I'd like to see happen, a more unified writing initiative, getting kids writing from kindergarten on up -- not handwriting. I'm talking about real writing. … A real central curriculum change would be getting real writing across the curriculum, in all subjects, and giving teachers really quality professional development on how to do it. It's easy to say, "Go teach your kids writing." But how? There's not enough how-tos about really getting writing done.

What's your favorite book for children to get excited about reading and writing?

Well, we're reading "Where the Red Fern Grows" (1961) now, and it's my absolute favorite. Ahh, the writing in that book! Wilson Rawls is just brilliant: lots of imagery, lots of great word choices. It's about the relationship between this boy and these dogs -- again, it's about relationships -- and I get my kids to look into their own relationships. We talk about relationships they might have with a pet or an animal. Then we talk about friends. Then we talk about relationships they have within their family, and it's just a great way to write -- very poetically almost -- and it gets them thinking a little deeper.ONLINE ONLY

For a longer version of Friday's interview with Muscogee County School District 2013 Teacher of the Year Kim Lester, click on this story at www.ledger-enquirer.comKIM LESTER

Age: 44

Experience: Journalist for four years; teacher for 15 years, including 2002-06 at South Columbus Elementary School, 2006-10 at Downtown Elementary Magnet Academy and 2010-present at Britt David; transferring to St. Elmo Center for the Gifted.

Education: Working on doctorate in curriculum at CSU; master's of certification in early childhood education, University of Florida, 1997; bachelor's degree in journalism, University of South Florida, 1991; diploma, East Bay High School, Gibsonton, Fla., 1987.

Family: Husband, John Lester, CSU's assistant vice president for university relations; daughters Julia (13, seventh-grader at Blackmon Road Middle School) and Danielle (8, third-grader at Britt David).

Hobbies: Geocaching, photography, running.

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