The 2006 Teacher of the Year: A Conversation with Kimberly Oliver

The 2006 Teacher of the Year on the best educational practices for the classroom, the school, the district, the state, and the nation.

October 19, 2006
Credit: AP

The key to Kimberly Oliver's success may lie as much in her vision of personalized, family-focused education as in the quiet way she pursues it. As the 2006 National Teacher of the Year, the twenty-nine-year-old recounts accomplishments that could fill a career several times longer than hers -- but she does so humbly. She speaks bold, articulate words -- softly.

Oliver started teaching kindergarten six years ago at Broad Acres Elementary School, in Silver Spring, Maryland, at a time when the state was threatening to overhaul the school for its flagging academic performance. She recalls that at the time, fewer than 12 percent of third graders tested proficient in reading or math. Starting the next year, Oliver served as a teacher leader as Broad Acres remade itself, unifying the curriculum across grade levels, instituting weekly discussions of assessment data, and orienting every staff member to the belief that each child can achieve.

To nurture their growth as teachers, she and her colleagues created study groups to read and discuss professional texts. And in grades 1-5, teachers specialized in subjects such as math or social studies, teaching two groups a day in their chosen subject instead of spreading their expertise more thinly across the entire curriculum. Within three years, third graders' proficiency in math and reading tests had shot up to nearly 70 percent, and Broad Acres began consistently meeting all the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In her own classroom, Oliver has emphasized literacy and focused her work on the needs of individual students. The Wilmington, Delaware, native, who holds national board certification, espouses a dedication to teaching children who live in poverty, and she goes out of her way to make those children's families partners in their success.

Four times a year, for example, she and her colleagues host a Books and Supper Night, where families are invited to school to sit in cozy nooks and read books together before sharing a communal dinner. The event showcases students' accomplishments in literacy -- and, the teachers hope, encourages reading in the home. Oliver's team has also secured grants for books on tape and bilingual books to help involve parents whose language barriers or illiteracy isolate them from their children's education.

A panel of fourteen leaders from national education organizations chose Oliver last spring as the 56th National Teacher of the Year, citing her focus on community, collaboration with fellow teachers, and conviction that all students can and will succeed. On June 1, under the auspices of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which runs the contest, Oliver began a year of traveling as a national and international spokesperson for education. In a recent conversation, she shared her insights and stories on everything from school restructuring to parent relations to classroom invasions by chipmunks.

What changes did you see, after Broad Acres's restructuring, in your daily work with children in your own classroom?

The biggest change for me was the collaboration. My first year, the year before the restructuring, there was no set time for us to meet in the day, so I was doing a lot of things by myself. I was working late every night, staying at school till about six o'clock, planning each and every lesson, assessment, and activity, and it was very draining for me.

The next year, we had time paid to work after school so that we could plan together, and it made a huge difference. It really helped me focus my lessons more because I wasn't reinventing the wheel. I wasn't relying solely on myself. I was able to draw upon the strengths of my teammates in areas where I needed to grow.

What are the best strategies you've found through that experience for working with your teacher colleagues?

Working as a team, and having consistency in the team. The school had previously had a very high turnover rate, so it was decided that whoever would begin this restructuring process would need to agree to stay for at least three years. So my team had a lot of consistency, where we were able to build relationships with one another, get to know each other, and allow each person to work to their strength.

If someone was good with technology, we allowed them to create things for the team using the computer and find the Web sites that we needed. If someone was good at drawing pictures, we allowed them to draw the pictures for the games that we were using. Drawing on each other's strengths, I think, is the best strategy, and being open to new ideas.

The teacher who inspired you, your daycare teacher when you were much younger, established a strong relationship with your family, and that meant a lot to you. I know that's also something that's important to you in your work, so how do you do that? What are the strategies you use for making that connection?

It's important to start the relationship off with a positive: calling parents during those beginning days of school and letting them know how their students are doing, what I notice that's good about them. That positive contact can happen as a phone call, while they're picking their student up at the end of the day, as an email, or whatever.

Parents enjoy hearing about their students, and knowing that their child's teacher knows them. It opens up the lines of communication for parents -- sometimes school can be an intimidating institution -- and it lets them know that I'm available for them. I also make it convenient for parents. I want all my parents to come to parent-teacher conferences, so they might have to be after five o'clock, when parents get off of work. It may mean that I need to have a translator there so that they can understand what's going on and the communication can be open and not hindered by language barriers.

Have you had any parents who have been really tough to get into the fold, who have been nonresponsive or resistant to getting involved? How have you handled that?

I've learned over the years that I can't really box in what parent involvement looks like, because the families of today are not the same families that I grew up in twenty-some-odd years ago; it's not the same dinnertime at five o'clock, when the streetlights come on. I know that some of the parents are not going to be able to come in and volunteer in my classroom during the day, and it doesn't mean they're not interested or concerned.

Once I was able to come to that conclusion, I've found that pretty much every parent I've ever dealt with has been interested in what their student is doing and supportive of what I'm trying to do as their teacher. That may mean helping them with homework because maybe they can't help with homework, because they don't speak English and are not able to read the homework assignments. So, just being very flexible and understanding has helped me realize that all parents are concerned and genuinely want the best for their students.

Which is more important for a child to learn in kindergarten: building blocks of their schoolwork, such as the alphabet, or social skills?

It's really hard to narrow it down to one thing, because they are so interconnected. You need the social skills to be able to interact with your peers to perform the academic work. But if I were to say one thing, I would probably say foundational skills for reading, including knowledge of the alphabet, some high-frequency words that they see often in print, phonemic awareness, knowledge of phonics, and concepts about print, how to hold a book, how to read a book left to right, top to bottom.

How do you keep that balance, when you have such young children, teaching both their hearts and their minds?

We deal with whole children, so it's hard to isolate one from the other. I really try to build relationships with my students and get to know them as individuals, and that comes into our lessons. If my students are excited about something, then I'll include that in my lesson plan, just to engage them and get them involved. If they have certain social skills that they need to work on, I'll include that in a lesson, too, and we'll do a lesson on how to ask someone to play with you or how to say, "Excuse me" or "Thank you." It really is all interrelated.

I know literacy is important to you. Is there a favorite literacy lesson that you like to give?

I love to teach reading. We have a portion of our literacy block where my students are engaged in literacy activities around the room, and I pull small guided-reading groups of four or less. It's a small, homogenous group, and we work on the skills that they need, and we read small books together. That really is my favorite time of the day. I like to see my students go from saying, "I can't read" to "Listen to me, Ms. Oliver," and going and hunting down every friend in the classroom to show them that they can read this book.

When you have a bunch of five-year-olds all together, there must be a ton of energy in the room. How do you channel that energy for something good?

I realize that my students are five, and I keep that in mind for everything I do. Our learning happens in short time frames. We'll do something for five to ten minutes, and then we'll do something else for five to ten minutes. It really is about knowing what's developmentally appropriate for that age level, and keeping them actively involved. I know they're not going to sit down and listen to something for thirty minutes, because that's not what five-year-olds do.

Each student has special needs, and if I have a student who is particularly fidgety and needs something in their hands, I might give them a little stress ball to play with. If I have a student who is particularly wiggly and kicks the other kids because he can't keep his legs crossed, then I might sit him in a different space where he can have a little extra room to move around. It's really just knowing each individual child and accommodating the environment to meet their needs.

On the flip side, have you had a student who was really timid or hung back from the class?

I've had children of all different personalities. Once again, it's about teaching social skills, and showing the children how to interact with other people, maybe even giving them words to say. It might mean that during their free-choice time, when they're choosing to play in the housekeeping center, I might go play with them and interact with the group just to model some of the skills that I want the students to have.

I recently visited a school in Portland, Oregon, that had twenty-seven children per kindergarten class, whereas your school has fifteen. The teachers there would love to do something like the literacy lessons you described, but it's tough. What advice would you give them?

It is all about classroom management. When you don't have a well-managed classroom, even if you have very effective lessons, they can go down the drain. Building personal relationships with each student really helps me with my classroom management: setting expectations on day one, reminding them of those expectations, and holding them to those expectations. My students can tell you what our classroom rules are, what the consequences are when those rules aren't followed, and what the rewards are when the rules are followed.

A lot of times, people will come into the classroom, and they're amazed that the students are working independently, that when I'm working with my small groups, the other thirteen children are engaged and on task, and they're working with their peers. People wonder how it is that they do that, but it's because they've been taught to do that. I spend a lot of time building the foundation of the classroom early on so that it runs smoothly later.

Do you actually plan for unplanned time in the class when kids can just be spontaneous?

My students do have a free-choice time, where they're able to choose a center to play at, so there is somewhat of an unstructured time, but there's still structure within that. I definitely believe in the teachable moment, so sometimes, even though I might have a lesson plan, if something else happens, I might just have to go with it.

Earlier this year, we had returned from lunch, and we sat down on the carpet to do a math lesson, and I saw a chipmunk running in the back of our classroom. We had to sit in the hallway while our building-service manager coerced the chipmunk out of our classroom. After that experience, you can imagine that our math lesson was not going to get done that day. Some students had never seen a chipmunk. So we took that time to go on the Internet and look up chipmunks, find out where they live, what they do, what they eat, and we did a little writing about chipmunks. The students got much more out of that experience than going with the math lesson that had been planned.

What about the push for universal preschool that some states are considering; as a kindergarten teacher, what do you think states must do to make these programs effective?

Universal preK is a wonderful ideal. Our students need to be engaged early on. All the research shows that children are capable of doing much more than we've ever expected they could do at these age levels. In fact, many of them need to be engaged at this age level, and it's the best time to engage them, but we're investing so little in that time frame. It's important that we do invest in it, and I would suggest that we have a curriculum for early-childhood classrooms.

My school district had an objective for third graders to meet, then we back-mapped it to what second graders, first graders, and kindergartners should be able to do, so it's a little ladder for each grade level, and that definitely can start with preK. I also think it's important that we have our preK students taught by qualified teachers who have had training and who continue to be trained to work with our students.

Some people say structuring lessons for four-year-olds is too rigid; preschoolers should just play. But you believe there are some specific things four-year-olds should know how to do?

I do. Play can be structured and still be fun and engaging, but at the same time a learning experience. We know that young students learn best through play. But there are certain things they are expected to do. As a kindergarten teacher who expects children to be able to begin to read by the end of the year, I often see many children who come in lacking so many of the foundational skills that it's hard for them to get to that point.

Some of them may be unable to write their name, sing the alphabet song, or even hold a pencil, or hold a crayon and draw a picture, or talk about a picture that they have. Many times, these are the students who have not had preK or Head Start experiences, and you realize that they're already being left behind before they ever begin school, because so many of their peers have had those opportunities.

How about the teachers who get left behind, who are new and get dropped into challenging schools and often end up leaving the profession -- what ideas do you have for them?

It's important that we systematically cultivate masterful teachers. One doesn't just become a masterful teacher. It happens through training and professional development. School systems need to provide more effective professional development for our newer teachers, and more support systems. As a new teacher, I had a mentor teacher next door to me. I also had a consulting teacher, who was designated as a master teacher and for three years came out of her classroom to work with new teachers. She would come into my classroom and observe me and give me feedback.

She also demonstrated lessons for me. Teaching kids to read was a whole new experience for me, and I wanted to make sure that I was doing it right because I realized it was so important, so I asked my consulting teacher to come in and model reading lessons for me. It was like I had my own personal trainer. That was a very important support system to keep me in the profession, because it really is hard work, and we can't expect new teachers to do it on their own.

As you go across the country, what have you observed are the greatest strengths and weaknesses in education right now?

One of the greatest strengths is that we're openly acknowledging the achievement gap and we're talking about what we can do to make it better. Just opening the discussion of how can we help all students achieve -- that has to come with the belief system that all students can achieve. One of the things I worry about for our school systems is that so many teachers are leaving the profession. The statistics say that one out of every two teachers leaves the profession within the first five years. That really is a disheartening statistic, because all the research shows that the teacher is the most important factor when determining the success of a student. It's important that every child has an excellent teacher, but we have to find a way to keep teachers in the profession so they can become master teachers.

Is there a role for assessment in kindergarten, and how do you handle the pressure of the NCLB as it works its way down into kindergarten?

Assessment is vital to my instruction. We have to assess to see what our students know; then we instruct our students, we give them time to apply the new knowledge and skills, and then we have to assess them to see if they got it, or if we need to go back and teach them a different way, or if we need to move on to the next lesson. What assessment looks like at each grade level may be different. In kindergarten, my students are not expected to sit down and perform a pen-and-paper test, so I engage them orally, I ask them questions, I jot down notes as I see them working or playing. There's a place for formal assessment as well.

Do you think the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act are realistic and obtainable?

I definitely think it's realistic. I do believe that all children can learn and achieve. But it doesn't come by doing what we've already been doing. It has to come with lots of change, and change is difficult, always. It's a law that we need to continue to revise and improve upon as we learn from our mistakes.

Working with children who are living in poverty or just learning English, or who have other big challenges that they're working against, is something that has driven you. What do you say to people who have any doubt that children with those challenges can rise to the level of everybody else and achieve just as highly?

I truly believe that all children can learn, and I just say, "Come to my classroom; come to my school." When I first began, my school district was moving to full-day kindergarten and toward a more rigorous curriculum for our early-childhood students, so the expectation became that kindergartners would begin to read by the end of the year. There were so many people who thought that it wasn't possible, that it wasn't developmentally appropriate.

As a new teacher, I just didn't know what was going on. I didn't know it was that controversial. I had a great team, they were very open to the idea, and we taught the curriculum -- we knew that our children could achieve it, and they did. That's how I ended up becoming a kindergarten trainer for our school system. My classroom was opened up to other teachers to say that, "Look, these kids are doing it; they're reading, they're writing, they're still enjoying school, and they can do it."

What would you say is your goal every day in the classroom; is it a big goal, or a small goal?

It's a big goal every day, because each day adds a little extra piece to the foundation that we're building. I take it very seriously that parents have entrusted me with their most precious commodity, their children. They have sent me the best that they have, and they want the best for them. My goal is really to bring out the best in each of my students each and every day, help them become a little smarter each and every day, show them they can do it, build up their confidence level, and give them strategies that they can use to solve problems.

Listen to excerpts from Grace Rubenstein's conversation with Kimberly Oliver:

  • On Working with Parents (4:30) An embedded object was here. Refer to migration log.
  • On Teaching Kindergarten (5:49) An embedded object was here. Refer to migration log.
  • On Public Education (4:27) An embedded object was here. Refer to migration log.
Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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