Spotlight: Carly Bowden (KS '19)March 17, 2020
At Carly Bowden (KS ’19)’s surprise Milken Award notification, two things stood out for her students: the fancy clothes, and how excited Carly’s colleagues were for her. Carly considers herself lucky: “I am truly blessed to work in a building and district that support me unconditionally.” The math teacher won the 2019-20 Kansas Milken Educator Award at Andover Central Middle School on January 9, 2020.
Milken Family Foundation: What do you like about middle school students?
Carly Bowden (KS ’19): Middle school is such a unique time. Society often portrays the middle school years in a negative light, but I see it as one of the most important periods. They have just finished their developmental years where a lot of habits and behaviors have already been formed. We get the chance as middle school teachers to help shape and (un)mold some of these things, good or bad. We get a chance to help continue their successful path through the second part of their educational career. They are still in the stage where their path can change.
Middle school students are beginning to be mature enough to see the bigger picture and the future. As middle school teachers, I feel like we get to really start to pose questions that make them think about who they are and what they are passionate about in this world. We get to guide them and help them discover what lies ahead. I find that if we believe in their capabilities and thoughts, they will blow us out of the water every single time.
Middle schoolers are brilliant and provide us with some of the most unique views of life that we could get. As adults, we could learn so much about this world and our future by listening to the youths living in the thick of it all.
MFF: You transform your classroom into the space station, an escape room or a grocery store to bring real-world math to your students. Why is this kind of immersive activity so effective?
Carly: I believe our minds are able to fully open up when experiencing a concept outside the context of a familiar environment or situation. For example, when I take my students to the local grocery store, I want them to see what math “looks” like and “feels” like outside of our classroom walls. It may not feel like a big deal for an adult to walk through a grocery store and decide what to buy, but middle schoolers aren’t used to making those types of decisions. By putting my students in the driver’s seat where they have to budget and make calculations to buy for a specific purpose or person, the whole lesson becomes relevant to their lives.
I strive to create experiences that are rooted in mathematical foundations while in a safe space. This allows failures to serve as opportunities for growth, anchor points that students will remember as they move into their adult lives. Sometimes this takes shape as fun activities, other times it requires extreme focus and perseverance.
MFF: You use social media to connect with teachers around the country. How does creating these relationships help you refine your craft?
Carly: I often use social media to pose questions regarding academic or professional topics and concerns. Different platforms serve different purposes, so I may use them to stay up to date with education articles or as a source of inspiration for new lessons. I believe it is just as important to surround myself with people who will make me better “virtually” as in person.
I have an incredible network within my school, but social media allows me to maximize growth opportunities for my students and myself by seeing what’s going on in different parts of the world. Meeting teachers at conferences and staying connected with them online allows me to tap into their resources and networks instantly. The face-to-face connection makes the online connection that much stronger, so I try to maximize that when I get the chance to interact with other educators.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Carly: A series of teachers showed me how beautiful the profession was through their classrooms. Brad Nicks (KS ’09), my high school math teacher, really breathed life into the possibility of becoming an educator. He allowed me to teach math lessons when he was gone for sporting events. This allowed me to get a taste of whether I might like teaching or not. Mr. Nicks also let me continue this during my senior year. I was also able to go down to the middle school level to see whether I liked that age group and content.
MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?
Carly: Brad Nicks is the reason I got into the teaching profession. He showed me multiple ways to learn math that spoke to the way my brain operated and taught me that there wasn’t just one way to solve. He also was the first teacher to speak life into the fact that he saw potential in me becoming an educator. He started teaching me effective teaching strategies my freshman year of high school and continues to this day.
Dyane Smokorowski has provided opportunities for me to expand my professional network nationally. She has helped me see the value in continuing to perfect my craft by attending professional development opportunities outside of the school walls. She has provided opportunities for teacher field trips where I see innovation at work and get to connect with educators outside of my district walls.
Connie Schrock was my college mentor, the professor who pushed me to my limits in one of the healthiest ways possible. She coached me through multiple methods classes and challenged me to learn not only the intended results of the methods, but the true purpose behind them.
What’s beautiful about education is that every single teacher I’ve had throughout my career has provided me with a “nugget” of information. I have a piece of every one of my past teachers incorporated into my classroom, craft and strategies. We truly don’t know the effect that we as educators have on our students, but reflecting on our own academic careers provides us with a unique perspective on how influential every educator is in our lives. It has been heavily on my heart the last five years to reach out to every past teacher to let them know how they have impacted not only me but my classroom. From one teacher to another, it provides an exponential impact.
MFF: How did your first year of teaching go?
Carly: I bit off more than I could chew. It was a dream come true to finally have my own classroom but I had a difficult time balancing my vision for each lesson with my personal life. It takes time to plan, execute and reflect on each lesson. I am thankful for my work ethic during my first year but I make sure to tell first year teachers to take time for themselves. My husband helped me find my balance. He made sure I was finding time for my hobbies and giving my brain a break from the constant state of creating new learning opportunities.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Carly: I remember the day starting off with a lot of excitement due to this mysterious assembly that was planned. You could just feel the energy in the building that morning. I remember finding a seat next to one of my students, and he asked me, “Mrs. Bowden, what is about to happen?” I laughed and said, “You know, I’m not too sure but I think it’s going to be something awesome!”
I remember getting emotional. The thought that all of these people came to our school to honor a teacher was truly touching. I was in high school when Brad Nicks won the Milken Award. As the assembly progressed I started to put pieces of information together. It was like I time-traveled back 10 years to the stands of Shawnee Heights High School where I watched Mr. Nicks at his surprise notification.
Our building is filled with so many outstanding educators. Any teacher in that gym could have received the Award. I am so blessed to work in a building with outstanding educators.
After they announced my name, I looked at the student next to me. I remember thinking, “If they truly just called my name, Ayden will be looking back at me.” He was looking directly at me with the biggest smile. I will remember that smile for the rest of my life.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Carly: My students were incredibly supportive and excited for us and our classroom. I am constantly telling them this is an opportunity for me to get to brag on what they are doing every day in class.
After the assembly, I asked my students what stood out to them the most and what they think they will remember in years to come. The students mentioned how many people were wearing fancy clothes and how excited the other teachers were for me. I am truly blessed to work in a building and district that support me unconditionally. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I had before college to dip my toe in the water to help me decide my pathway.
MFF: Any plans for your $25,000?
Carly: My husband and I are still looking into our options, including my getting a master’s in STEM education. We are also thankful for the opportunity to start thinking about expanding our family.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Carly: I believe success and growth go hand in hand. Success to me is first accepting my students where they are when they enter our classroom and then seeing them through to where they are headed. I don’t believe this can be measured over just the one year I have my students. Success comes through continuous growth over an entire lifetime, but that growth may start or be accelerated in my classroom, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly. Ultimately, success is the ability to make it through life’s trials and failures with character still intact.
MFF: What do you hope your students remember from their time with you?
Carly: I hope they remember the experiences I provided for them. When they are older, I hope they realize the love that I tried to share and cover them with. Either way, I hope they remember the skills we practice to listen and treat others with kindness from day to day.
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