Spotlight: Kara Davis (AR '16)February 8, 2017
Kara Davis (AR ’16), the first in her family to go to college, shares her own family's working-class background with her fourth-graders to remind them that school holds the key to their futures: "Education is a way to achieve their dreams." She received Arkansas' 2016-17 Milken Educator Award at Joe Mathias Elementary School in Rogers on November 18, 2016.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Kara Davis (AR ’16): I always knew I wanted to help people. I remember playing "teacher" as a child. My poor little brother had many lessons taught to him! As I went through high school, I became interested in the social sciences. It was interesting to think about how and why people thought and acted the way they did.
I entered college as a psychology major but started teaching preschool to pay my way through school. I fell in love. It was amazing to see how a child could learn. I changed my major to education. I remember my first day of student teaching and getting to be a part of a classroom. It truly felt like I had found my way home.
MEA: Why did you decide to teach elementary school?
Kara: There was never any question that I would teach elementary school. I love their thirst for knowledge and the way they adore school. You can see the light bulb go off when they finally understand something they have been struggling with. It is amazing when they realize they can read and this whole new world opens up to them.
The most frustrating thing about this age group is that they are developing and learning who they are as people. They push the limits to see how far they can go. This often leads to poor choices and decisions that are not typical for them. They are also learning how to navigate friendships and social situations, which means they are more concerned with how their peers see them. All of this generates teachable moments. Helping them discover who they are destined to be—it's exciting and challenging.
MEA: What was your first job?
Kara: My first job was working at Wal-Mart. I worked on the floor organizing materials and helping customers, then became a cashier and a customer service manager. I learned that a positive attitude, a smile and a helping hand can defuse many difficult situations.
MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?
Kara: Mr. Urban, my seventh-grade geography teacher. He made learning concepts fun with games like Jeopardy. One day he pulled me aside and told me he had seen my work, that I was capable of great things. He pushed to put me in the advanced classes. This was a turning point in my education; from that point on I knew I could do it. I try to remember how that one conversation made me realize that I was capable of things I didn't think I could achieve. It helps me realize how important it is to call out my students' potential.
MEA: Did your family influence your decision to become an educator?
Kara: I was the first person in my family to go to college. We moved around a lot and both my parents worked really hard to make ends meet so I could have a better life. Because of them, I knew I wanted to show others that education can change your life, no matter your background.
MEA: What subjects did you love (or not)?
Kara: When I was elementary school, my favorite subject was reading. I could easily get lost in a book and I would read cereal boxes if I couldn't get my hands on a book. I enjoyed everything until fractions in fifth grade, when I decided that I didn't have a "math brain." And, no surprise, I found math more difficult from that point on.
Once I became a teacher and began to learn about growth versus fixed mindset, I realized how much I had developed a fixed mindset when it came to math. After I began to teach fourth grade, I saw how important it was for students who found school easy to be challenged so that they wouldn't give up when faced with difficult things. I also realized how important it was for students to develop an understanding about how powerful and flexible our brains are.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Kara: I graduated in June and began teaching second grade in August, just two months later. I spent every minute of that summer setting up my first classroom. I remember how nervous I was walking into that classroom on the first day of school. "Did they really give me this class? Do I even know what I am doing?" It was almost like when I took my first child home from the hospital.
I think I learned more from that first class of students than I could ever have taught them. I learned that when you are a teacher you give your whole heart to your class. You just can't leave those kiddos at school at the end of the day. They go with you wherever you are.
The hardest thing was definitely learning how to manage a classroom. There are so many kids who need you to love on them, care about them and educate them. Learning how to do that comes with a steep learning curve.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Kara: I think it had a great impact on both my current and previous students. Every year I talk with my fourth-graders about my background. I tell them how I moved from school to school, how we lived in different apartments growing up and never owned a house. It is always during that talk that they realize that they could have a different life than what they have right now. I think sometimes kids think that teachers have an easier life than they have. I think it is important for them to see that education is a way to achieve their dreams.
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?
Kara: That mistakes are important because they help us get better. That it takes a brave person to put his or her mistakes on display, but you always come out better when you do. That mistakes are not something to hide or feel ashamed about. I hope they learn that mistakes are something that you pull out and inspect. That by looking carefully at them, you realize how or where you went wrong so you can grow and learn.
I hope my students always remember that I care about them. That anytime I pushed them hard, it was because I cared deeply about them and their future. I hope they remember that I saw potential in them. And I hope that for some kids, I was the person who showed them that they could be bigger than they thought they could be.
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Kara: I talk to parents to find out the best way to keep in touch with them. Some years they like to keep in contact with Facebook; other years we'll text or use apps like Remind. I'm flexible. Parents have my phone number and can call or text me whenever they need to. I use Google Translate to send messages to parents, and our wonderful school secretaries help me talk to parents who don't speak English. I write a newsletter and distribute it digitally and on paper. I have made videos to show parents how to help their kids at home. I also serve on our school's PTO board to help bridge the gap between classroom and home.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Kara: Small group time. Students who don't feel confident enough to share with the whole class will often speak up in a small group setting. It's also a great time to develop relationships and offer help where students need it. Many times students who have struggled suddenly get it in the small groups. It's empowering to be part of that.
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Kara: The variety of levels in one classroom. Students come from a variety of backgrounds and ability levels. It is up to teachers to help meet the needs of all the kids, and that can be overwhelming. The great thing about this challenge is that there are other teachers who stand with you and work together to figure out how to meet those needs.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars to use at your school, what would you do with it?
Kara: Many of the kids in my school and community need help getting their basic needs met. I would open a school-based health center to help meet students' medical needs. A place where kids can get health care when they're sick or see a dentist. I would also open a place where parents can have access to washers and dryers so they can have clean clothes without spending money at the laundromat. I would use this to help connect parents to community services in one location.
I would also get books into kids' hands. Many of our kids don't have books at home, and I know how important it is to have books to call your own.
MEA: If you hadn’t chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Kara: I would probably be a therapist. I have always enjoyed learning about the social sciences and helping people overcome obstacles in their lives.
MEA: What can our nation do better to encourage young, capable people to consider teaching as a career? How can we motivate new teachers to stay in the profession?
Kara: I have spoken with people who are considering teaching and there's a common thread: their love for children and the communities in which they live. They want to make a difference and do better for the world in which they live.
Our nation needs to do better about promoting teaching as a worthy profession. The thinking and planning that goes into teaching every day is enormous, and I don't think many people understand that. I think it is important to promote education to both high school and college students, not only as a way to change the world, but also as a thinking profession.
It is vital that we support new and beginning teachers. When you realize the level of need in your classroom—not only academics, but social and emotional needs as well—it can be very overwhelming. We need to provide support to new teachers in classroom management, curriculum and self-care. We, the education community, need to realize that new teachers' needs differ from those of veteran or seasoned teachers. When we realize those needs, we can serve them better.
We also need to provide opportunities for growth within education. For many teachers there is little opportunity for growth beyond leaving the classroom. We need to support leadership opportunities from within the classroom.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Kara: ...when my students don't need me. When they can reason, problem-solve and question the world without me there, I have done my job.
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