By Rachel Keller Collins
Many excellent educators spend their careers working hard to invest in the future generations of their community without feeling noticed or appreciated but occasionally, they are surprised with an award that recognizes they stand apart from their peers. Kimberly Barrett, an English teacher at South Marshall Middle School, was recently surprised with such an honor: KCTE’s (Kentucky Council of Teachers of English) Middle School Teacher of the Year, which is a peer-nominated award.
Although no one knows who nominated Barrett for the award, Principal Shannon Solomon and Assistant Principal Jon Bell agreed she deserves the recognition.
Solomon said, “I love spotlighting our teachers. Mrs. Barrett has such a gift for reaching all students and she is literally a 'ray of sunshine' for many of our students. Her unique teaching strategies move her students forward and challenge them in new ways.”
Bell said, “What’s going on in her classroom is unbelievable and I think people that are doing right need recognition. She’s not just changing our kids; she’s changing our community and our world.”
When asked why she believed she was nominated for the award, Barrett said while she didn’t know who nominated her, she thought perhaps her adventurous spirit combined with her eagerness to continuously learn.
“I’m a ‘yes’ person and I love to learn, constantly, and I think maybe those two things had something to do with it, and maybe my willingness to change. I always want to do better, even if it’s in my personal life,” she said. “It’s hard work sometimes because you’re out on an island by yourself and they think you’re crazy and roll their eyes at you. But I’m used to that now and I just laugh when it happens because I’ll try anything.”
This school year was Barrett’s first in Marshall County but her 21st year teaching. She worked in Graves County for six years, spent 14 in Calloway County and decided to make a change and head to Marshall. She laughed when she said her mother would probably “roll in her grave” knowing Barrett had taken a job in the rival’s school system but “it was time for change.”
“When I was offered this job I just felt like it was God’s timing because He wanted me here,” she added. “When I met Mrs. Solomon and sat face to face with her and saw her heart and her passion and her vision, I knew I’d be a fool not to take the job.”
Barrett, who teaches writing to 6th and 8th graders, shared some of the things her kids are up to behind the walls of the school and she said while some of it may seem “new,” it’s not, it’s simply that it’s methods that are just trickling into this area. But even the methods she’s borrowing from other teachers who’ve had success, she’s adding her own spin to fit the needs of her students. So while she’s incorporating social media such as Tumblr and Twitter in her classroom, she’s also utilizing blogging as a teaching tool for her 8th graders.
“I’m starting to move away from the strict standards and letting them play and this year I really have some writers. I’ve been doing this for years but the quality of writing that’s coming out of these kids, this year, is incredible,” she said. “They’re all on Tumblr and they’re on all these sites anyway so why not capitalize on it in the classroom but still leave it to where they have they freedom? They’re just writing, writing, writing and it’s good writing. Is it award-winning? Some of it probably not but it’s teaching them how to have an authentic voice and a purpose for writing.”
Another unique element of Barrett’s classroom is Kory Davenport, the active-duty U.S. soldier she and her class have ‘adopted’ through the ‘Adopt a U.S. Solider’ program.
“The kids do not have direct contact with him at all. They don’t really know where he is. I know where he is but I had to agree to keep him safe,” she said. “It’s been a little scary because he’s in a place where they’ve been bombed heavily and he’s been on lock-down now for a month and so his communication with me has been sketchy. But what’s neat is the kids still hear from him.”
Barrett said the kids frequently ask about him and every so often, they help her fill up care packages with pictures they’ve drawn, knick-knacks they think he might like, even homemade cupcakes and cookies. She said they frequently ask if he’s doing alright and when he is able to communicate, she shares it with them. Davenport recently had a baby, she said, so the kids frequently about the baby, as well. She said Davenport sends pictures when he’s allowed and shares stories with the kids about famous people he’s met who came to the military base to visit.
“It’s like the servicemen and women are becoming real to them and they are seeing that it’s bigger than them,” she said. “A lot of times the kids don’t realize the world doesn’t revolve around them and not because they’re bad; it’s just because they’re kids and we’ve raised them to think the world revolves around them. Then one day we decide we want them to think of other people but we’ve never taught them that. This does.”
When asked what was at the root of her innovation, Barrett said it’s her sense of responsibility to teach the kids more than just ‘skill and drill.’
“I just feel like we adults have the responsibility to teach the kids nowadays the proper way to use technology and the proper way to handle themselves in public. We see children more than the parents do and that’s not a judgmental thing—the teachers at Calloway see my son more than I do,” she said. “I have the same curriculum as everyone else, I just don’t get so caught up in the little things. When I look at it I think about how I also want them to be able to shake hands and look people in the eye; I want them to know how to put together a good, solid outline; and I also want to teach them voice. I just don’t get so caught up in the little things.”
Barrett has also been active with the Marshals for Christ, although she refuses to take any responsibility for its inception. She said the school system had something similar before she arrived but some 8th graders approached her early in the school year and asked why the school couldn’t have a faith-based or Christian-based organization.
“I told them we could, I’d just been waiting for the opportunity,” she said. “So I enlisted the help of my friend, Scott Pile, who has been involved in Lakers for Christ at Calloway for a long time, and I modeled it after his.”
Barrett said while it’s more of a devotional than a sermon, Bro. Allen Miller “has been a staple” in the program and even brings breakfast for the kids from time to time. She said they try to have a different speaker every week and also try to keep it non-denominational.
Regarding the size of the group, Barrett said it has “flourished.” She said for the first meeting on Sept. 16 there were 33 students present. For the March 3 meeting, there were 78 students present.
Barrett said the community has been supportive and the kids have showed enthusiasm. She said one student went as far as using his own money to purchase a ‘prayer box’ that sits on her desk, which students fill with post-it notes marked with prayer requests the group prays over during their weekly meeting.
“People say God is not in our schools but actually, He is; it’s what you’re willing to allow,” she said.
Barrett said she’s still learning her way around Marshall County and meeting the community and making new friends but so far, she’s found the county “welcoming and friendly.”
She said, “It was a good time to come here too because we’re all new and we’re all learning. We’re all trying to build a culture and so this is just a perfect time.”