Insight from Utah’s 2019 Teacher of the Year

Kellie May, Utah’s 2019 Teacher of the Year, has worked in Salt Lake City School District for 24 years — three in early childhood special education, 13 in middle school, seven in high school and, currently, as a teacher specialist, supporting new hires as they begin their teaching careers. She’s an advocate for underrepresented students, increasing Utah’s per-pupil spending, recruiting and retaining teachers and working effectively with a child’s first teachers, their parents … even when parents and teachers don’t see eye to eye.

As both a parent and teacher, May gave us her thoughts on how parents can support education, tackle difficult situations and help their kids when they struggle in class.

Discussing School

Taking an interest in your child’s education goes beyond, “What did you do in school today?” May says parents should ask specific questions — about their child’s world civics class, that last math test or an English assignment. Parents have told May about great conversations they had with their kids on topics she covered in her US government class, including immigration, voting and constitutional amendments.

Of course, having any conversation with a moody teen, particularly about school, is easier said than done. “Teenagers, by nature, developmentally, can be challenging,” May says. “Even though your child may not be communicative every day, communicate with them every day.” She recommends not letting the conversation feel like a punishment, to learn your child’s interests and build on those topics.

Summer Reading

Parents can help prevent “summer learning loss” by encouraging kids to read about what they’re interested in. For example, when May’s son was excited about studying the Titanic at school, she sought out reading material, fiction and non-fiction, on the ship and its time period to keep the learning going. In addition, she says parents can enroll kids in educational or sports camps, or look for museum programs to keep their minds active.

When Your Kid Struggles

Deciding whether your child should self-advocate or you should step in for them depends on a lot of factors, May says, including the maturity of your child and their relationship with their teacher.

If your kid is stuck on a homework problem, May says you can encourage them to go over it with their teacher and ask for another example of the problem to figure out at home. If your kid continues to struggle, even after they talk to their teacher, May says to reach out to the teacher yourself. “I would say sooner is better than later just to get in front of things before it gets too frustrating for the child,” she says.

Parents can also look into resources available outside of class, like after-school tutoring.

Parent-Teacher Disagreement

May hasn’t experienced many difficult situations with parents, but when they came up, she took care of issues in a way many world leaders never could: respectfully communicating .

In her third or fourth year teaching, May recalls a parent making her feel incompetent at parent-teacher conference, comparing her class to the child’s former school in Washington, D.C. “I felt terrible about the situation and talked to colleagues, and they said to just keep it in perspective; she wants what’s best for her child,” May says. “I ended up calling her a couple days later and asked if she would mind meeting with me and sharing more information about her thoughts on what she felt her daughter was missing, and some of the ideas she had from the other school.” May and the parent found common ground and stayed in contact years later.

“Even if there are those challenging parents, if you can just keep in mind they just want what’s best for their kids and try to communicate with them with that in mind, it’s going to work out for the best,” she says. “It’s hard sometimes, your ego might get bruised, you might get your feelings hurt, but, in the end, we all want the success of the child.”

On the flip side, she encourages parents to remember that teachers work with quite a few students — 20 plus in elementary schools and hundreds in high schools, and high volume can bring high stress.

“Just be empathetic towards each other — parents and teachers,” she says.

Teacher of the Year
Kellie May at the Utah Teacher of the Year banquet last September. Photo by David Newkirk, courtesy of Utah State Board of Education.

Teacher of the Year

The Utah State Board of Education named May the 2019 Teacher of the Year last September. With the recognition, she received $10,000 and a trip to Washington D.C., where she participated in professional development opportunities, competed for the national Teacher of the Year title, met with Utah legislators, President Trump and Vice President Pence, and joined Second Lady Karen Pence for a dedicated breakfast.

The title came as a shock to May. “It’s not something expected or that you work towards, you don’t have in your head ‘I’m going to be the Teacher of the Year,’” she says. “You’re just working hard for students.”

Throughout her years in education, she says her biggest teachers have been students. “My students are who made me a teacher worthy of being the state Teacher of the Year,” she says. “They’re the ones who inspired me to believe in them, so hopefully they would believe in themselves.”

Submit your 2020 Teacher of the Year through June 24, 2019.

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Jaime Winston
Jaime Winston
Jaime is a contributing writer for Salt Lake magazine. Formerly, he served as our editorial intern, then as our assistant web editor, and, finally, as our web editor. While he covers many different topics, he is especially interested in nerdy entertainment, from FanX's artist alley to Sundance's Midnight screenings.

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