Spotlight: Katelyn Baker (TN '16)March 20, 2017
Katelyn Baker (TN '16) found math difficult when she was in school, but that's actually made her a better math teacher: "I can relate to the frustrations and misconceptions my students have in math." The third-grade teacher received Tennessee's 2016-17 Milken Educator Award at Battle Academy on March 7, 2017.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Katelyn (Katie) Baker: I have always known I wanted to be a teacher. I have always loved being around kids and sought out jobs that involved them.
MEA: Why elementary school?
Katie: I just love the curiosity, positivity and optimism children that age bring to the classroom. It's an incredible responsibility to shape the attitude children will have about school for years to come. I've also always loved teaching children to read. It can be frustrating when children don't have the support outside of school that I wish they had.
MEA: What was your first job?
Katie: Babysitting. Of course, that taught me responsibility, but I also learned the importance of having a relationship with a child before you can teach him or her anything. If a child doesn't trust you or doesn't know that you care, you won't get anywhere.
MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?
Katie: Mr. Bass, my fifth-grade math teacher. Math has always been my most challenging subject, so for my math teacher to be my favorite teacher is really saying a lot. I remember that his class was never boring. He had games to make it more fun and engaging. He got to know his students and made everyone feel special and important.
MEA: So math was tough for you. What subjects did you like?
Katie: My favorite subject was English. I have always loved to read and write. Math was hard for me. In high school, I would seek out tutoring from classmates or the teacher. In college, I was always stopping by to ask questions during my professors' office hours.
As a teacher, I love teaching both subjects for different reasons, but I often find teaching math easier. I think my own struggles with math have made me a better math teacher because I can relate to the frustrations and misconceptions my students have in math. Reading has always been enjoyable to me, so I have a harder time relating to students who struggle to read or don't want to do it.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Katie: My first class was extremely diverse. Being at a magnet school, I had students from every socioeconomic status and race. I was definitely unprepared for many of the behavior issues I faced. One student in particular was extremely challenging—my most memorable moment from that year was probably when, in anger, he threw a flower pot across the room. I've certainly learned better classroom management strategies since then! The biggest thing learned that year was to ask for help. My teammates and coaches still continue to teach and guide me.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Katie: I think this may be the first time many of the students have even thought about teaching as something they might want to do one day. I thought about that right after I won the Award, when one of my students told me she wants to be a teacher just like me. That was amazing to hear. Of course, most of the kids want to know what I'm going to do with the $25,000. I think it is great for them to see teaching as a career that can have amazing opportunities.
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?
Katie: I hope they remember that I saw their potential and pushed them towards it. I want my students to feel like they can do and be anything. I try to maintain my high expectations while at the same time making sure my students know that I care about them as individuals.
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Katie: We go on many field studies at our school so parent chaperones are always joining us for those. Each class also has a "Room Mom" who is involved directly with students, working with them in the classroom. Our school also encourages individuals in the community to be part of our school as mentors. A mentor meets with a student one-on-one just to talk, play a game or read a book. It's a great opportunity for students to have a positive role model they can talk to.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Katie: First thing in the morning, when I greet my students one by one at the door. No matter what happened the day before, each day is a fresh start.
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Katie: Meeting all the needs of every student, when they are all performing at such different levels. I want every student to get what he or she needs.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Katie: I would love to take my students on more field studies. Experiences and opportunities for hands-on learning would be at the top of the list. Access to technology would also be something I would want to bring to my students. Technology is so important to get them college and career ready, even at the elementary level. Also, I would just want to help make sure our students had everything they need to be ready to learn—school supplies, clothes, food, etc.
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Katie: That is a tough question because I have always wanted to be a teacher. I think I would have had to find another career where I felt like I was directly contributing to my community in some way. I would probably have a job at a local organization that works to benefit the community.
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?
Katie: In order for education to attract the best and the brightest, teacher preparation programs need to have high standards for the students they allow into the program, like medical school or law school. Too often, I see people choosing education as a fallback or because their initial major was too hard. Students in education programs and new teachers need passionate and positive mentors to help guide them in their first few years.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Katie: ...when my students can describe what they have learned and they have smiles on their faces.
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