Spotlight interview: Hailey Couch (OK '18)December 6, 2018
Classroom management is no easy feat with five- and six-year-olds, but kindergarten teacher Hailey Couch (OK ’18) is a master. Her secret: “If my students know that I love them and respect them, chances are they will give me the exact same respect in return.” Hailey won Oklahoma’s 2018-19 Milken Educator Award at Madison Elementary in Norman on October 23, 2018.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Hailey Couch (OK ’18): I was in complete shock. As Mr. [Lowell] Milken was talking about how one lucky teacher was leaving school that day as a Milken Award winner, I was looking around the gym thinking to myself, "Wow! I wonder who it is! It could literally be any teacher in this gym!" When he made the announcement, I just kind of stared at my teammates for a minute and asked if he had really just said my name. What an honor! It is all sort of a blur. I am very thankful for the videos that let me relive the amazing moment.
MFF: How did your students respond to your Milken Award?
Hailey: I have never seen such smiles! My students are five and six, so they were a little confused at first. But when they saw the joy on my face, they definitely knew something pretty exciting was happening. Many parents reached out to me that evening to congratulate me and tell me that their children could not wait to share the news when they got home from school. It is now months later and my students still ask me daily, "Hey Mrs. Couch—remember when you won that really big check and we all had the best day ever?!" My students are really proud of me, even at such a young age, and that is something I will always cherish.
MFF: What brought you to teaching?
Hailey: I have always enjoyed being around children and watching them grow and succeed. I was very lucky to have amazing teachers growing up who truly impacted my life in the most positive ways, and I wanted to be that teacher for students. I want to be my students’ biggest cheerleader, their biggest fan. My students are the future, and I am incredibly lucky to play even a small part in their lives. Teaching is more than a job to me. It is who I am.
One of my role models, Barb Shrewsberry, is a family friend and a retired pre-K teacher. She helped me when I was considering teaching. I volunteered in her classroom when I was in high school and college, and I fell in love with early childhood education. When it was time to apply for jobs in 2013, I asked her if I should also apply for teaching assistant jobs, just in case I did not get offered a kindergarten teaching position. She said for me to set my bar high and to believe in myself. Barb called me the second she found out I had won the Milken Educator Award and said, "Told ya so. I knew you were going to be an amazing educator."
MFF: Why did you choose kindergarten?
Hailey: The foundation of a successful education begins at the elementary level. Kindergarten is such an amazing grade level to teach because of the growth that takes place. There is something truly special about seeing a student come to me in August not knowing any letters and sounds, and then leaving my class in May knowing how to read and write.
At five and six children have such a sweet innocence. They love anyone and everyone, and they welcome any person with a big smile and full heart. For example, we just welcomed a new student into our classroom last week, and they all greeted him with hugs and kind words. My class became friends with him instantly. It was very special to witness such kindness. Kindergarten students do not see race or color. They see a person. They see a friend.
I learn so much from my littles every day. They keep me on my toes and there is never a dull moment in our classroom. Each day is a new and exciting opportunity to learn. I strive to inspire and motivate them daily, but they inspire me to want to be a better educator every single day.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Hailey: One of my favorite teachers ever was my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Shuster. We recently became reunited and have lunch together frequently. She really impacted my life in a wonderful way, and I strive to be the kindergarten teacher to my students that she was to me.
My principal, Mr. [Dominic] Barone, inspires me daily to be a better teacher. Watching him handle the hardest situations with composure is something every teacher ought to witness. He pushes me to be better and better, and I will forever be grateful for that.
Our Norman Public Schools superintendent, Dr. Nick [Migliorino], is also one of my role models. He cares for every single teacher in our district. When he first became the superintendent, he went to all of the schools in Norman and shook every single teacher’s hand! From the first day I met him, I knew I wanted to make him proud of me.
My coworkers at Madison are also my role models. We are a family, and we would do anything for one another. I am beyond grateful to work at Madison with such amazing educators.
My dad, Bert Blanton, is my number one role model. He is the strongest person that I know. Ever since my mom passed away, he has had to be both mom and dad. I know that my mom is so very proud of him, because I am proud of him. My dad is extremely inspiring, and I try to be like him every day. He tells me every morning, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Go get 'em. Live it. Love it. I love you." He is the best dad a daughter could ask for. I thank him for believing in me. I wouldn't be the person that I am today without him. He is my biggest cheerleader, and I am so thankful for him.
My big brother, Matt Blanton, is also one of my role models. He is the best big brother that a little sister could ask for. I have no idea what I would do without him. He has the biggest heart. I love him so much. I try to be like him daily.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Hailey: I wanted to help change the world, but I wasn’t sure how. I did know this, though: I wanted to be sure that every single student knew that I loved them and I would do anything for them. I grew so much as a teacher, and as a person, during my first year of teaching. I was very blessed to have five other teammates with experience who took me under their wings. I could not have succeeded during my first year without my mentor, Mrs. Boyd. She guided me daily. There were challenges, but the many positive experiences outweighed the hard times.
MFF: You traveled to China on a teacher exchange program and then hosted a Chinese teacher in your own classroom. How have those intercultural experiences affected your work?
Hailey: Traveling to China to experience firsthand what elementary schools are like there was truly life-changing. It was remarkable to see the similarities and differences. Having a Chinese intern, Miss Ma, was a wonderful experience. Not only did I teach her, I learned a great deal from her. My students learned to speak Chinese, which is such a neat experience for five-year-olds. Miss Ma really opened their eyes, and mine, to a whole new culture. Our school holds a Multicultural Fair every year and each class studies a different country. My class, of course, studied China, and I really enjoyed sitting on the carpet with my kiddos while Miss Ma taught us something new every day.
MFF: You’re known as a master of classroom management—not an easy feat with five-year-olds. Can you share some of your secrets?
Hailey: I think what it boils down to is being direct, consistent, stern and loving, all at the same time. It is a hard balance, but once you find it, it is truly magical and life-changing as an educator.
Having "with-it-ness" and utilizing proximity is also key. I try to know exactly what is going on in my classroom every second of the day. I strive to be upbeat and engaging all day as well. I want to hook my students in to every lesson that I teach. If they are really engaged and want to learn, the undesired behaviors go away.
Students want to do their best for you if they know that you care. Mutual respect is everything. If my students know that I love them and respect them, chances are they will give me the exact same respect in return. I treat my kindergartners as humans, not children. I give them the respect every person deserves.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Hailey: My husband and I have been wanting to buy our first home together after years of renting, so we will be using some of this money for a down payment. But of course, I would not have received this award without being a teacher, so I will be using some of the money on my students and my classroom. I want to buy something really special for my students to use in our classroom. I’m still brainstorming.
MFF: How do you define "success" for yourself, and for your students?
Hailey: I try to be a better person than I was yesterday. My mom, who passed away from cancer when I was 16, always told me to never give up on my dreams, and to always believe in myself: "Be good in the world. You will be successful not based on how much money you make, but how you make others around you feel." Success for my students means that they leave my class in May as better people who love school and learning and know how to treat others kindly.
Don’t miss any new articles and updates from Milken Educator Awards: