Spotlight: Katherine Bobby (PA '18)January 9, 2019
Katherine Bobby (PA '18) says her surprise Milken Educator Award notification has had a lasting impact on the way her students: “Without a doubt, the Award has heightened their appreciation of and respect for the teaching profession.” Katie received Pennsylvania's 2018-19 Award at Eagle View Elementary in Somerset on October 31, 2018.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Katherine (Katie) Bobby: Because no one other than my building principal and superintendent knew the real reason for the assembly, I didn’t have the chance to be nervous until Dr. [Jane] Foley started unraveling the mystery and building the suspense. As Dr. Foley was describing the attributes of a Milken Educator, my mind was busy making a list of some of my fabulous coworkers who easily fit the description. I was both shocked and delighted to hear my name called as the Award recipient. To have multiple years’ worth of labor suddenly be recognized was overwhelming, as evidenced by my immediate tears. As my sister said to me that evening, “What an amazing honor to be secretly noticed and then publicly lauded!”
MFF: How did your students respond to your Milken Award?
Katie: My students were so excited! When my current third-graders saw my emotional reaction, some of them started crying happy tears too. Once the assembly ended, my first period students rushed up and greeted me with a group hug. My second period students spontaneously followed suit with a group hug of their own when I made my way back to class. To see them so genuinely happy for someone else was heartwarming; they felt like it was a collective win.
Many of my former students have reached out to offer their sincere congratulations. For weeks after the assembly, I had former students giving me high-fives and shouting out their congrats when I passed them in the hallways of our elementary building. I’ve even had former students who are now in junior high and high school contact me with similar warm messages.
Without a doubt, our students’ awareness of the Milken Educator Award has heightened their appreciation of and respect for the teaching profession. They seem to understand the great responsibilities of the job and the importance of recognizing the hard work and consistent effort of others.
MFF: How did you land in education?
Katie: For me, the decision to become a teacher was a gradual realization rather than a big “aha” moment. I had always been comfortable around kids. Breaking down academic information and explaining it to others came naturally to me. In middle school and high school I spent many evenings and weekends babysitting and tutoring in order to make money for my tuition. People often told me I would excel at teaching. I was also excited at the thought of carrying out my mother’s dream for herself; she had been an education major until financial strain made her drop out of college in 1970.
MFF: What do you like about teaching elementary students?
Katie: I love the excitement of elementary-aged students. They are less self-conscious and more willing to step out of their comfort zones in order to tackle tough new skills and concepts. Likewise, young kids are willing to keep trying when they first encounter failure. Elementary students have an unbridled enthusiasm that bubbles over when they achieve a long-desired success. That makes teaching tough new academic, emotional, physical and social skills so exciting!
MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?
Katie: I have been blessed to have so many positive educational influences in my life. As a student, my stand-out teacher was Mrs. Kalwasinski, who taught first grade at St. Michael’s School in Loretto. I’m sure that I made terrific academic progress under her care, but the classroom environment that she created is what I will always treasure. Mrs. K was welcoming, encouraging, flexible and sensitive. She went above and beyond to make sure each student in her class knew that he or she was unique and valuable.
My mentor teacher, Mrs. Kathy Maurer, taught me the value of levelheadedness, and her modeling of making personal connections with the students was first-rate. Here at the Somerset Area School District, where I have taught for the last 11 years, I have also found role models in Mrs. Gail Jurgevich, Mrs. Martha Vukela, and Mrs. Janine Nielan. I was lucky enough to work in the same hallway as all of these wonderful educators before they retired, and what I learned from them was invaluable. Gail’s tireless work ethic day in and day out inspired me, Martha modeled the nuanced difference between pity and compassion when working with special needs students, and Janine’s classroom management skills can be matched by no one!
Presently, I find myself inspired by fellow ELA teachers Mrs. Liz Craig and Mrs. Stefanie Spangler. They continue to be daily models for creativity, work ethic, and resourcefulness. Lastly, my current principal, Mr. Trevor Anderson, has instilled in me the belief that students, buildings, districts and communities can be turned around through consistent, good choices that keep the kids’ best interests at heart.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Katie: It was an exhausting blur. I struggled to put all of my hard-earned knowledge of lesson planning, instructional practices, classroom management and parent communication into action.
Some of my best memories include the pride I felt each time I planned and carried out an ambitious unit that had the students buzzing with excitement. One time in particular, I remember a parent writing me a note thanking me for getting their struggling reader excited about finishing an assignment.
My most challenging experience as a new teacher was learning that I couldn’t just rely on “the way that things had always been done.” It was a painful lesson to learn at times, but as I grew more confident in my ideas and abilities, I felt more comfortable changing ineffective practices and traditions. My mentor teacher at my first teaching job, Mrs. Kathy Maurer, and my supportive co-workers at the Somerset Area School District, particularly Ms. Judy Maxwell, our director of curriculum, were instrumental in helping me find my own teaching voice.
MFF: You taught special education before moving to a general classroom. What strategies and philosophies did you carry over?
Katie: My two years as a special education teacher and my one year as a reading interventionist taught me that no success is too small to be celebrated. My experiences in those roles also reinforced that forging personal connections with the students has to be a top priority if a teacher’s goal is to engage students in the learning process. A student who struggles academically already comes to school feeling defensive and defeated; being an educator who capitalizes on seemingly small victories and who gets the students to desire knowledge is essential in turning those particular students’ lives around. I carried that philosophy over with me when I took on the role of a teacher of regular education curriculum in my district.
MFF: Tell us about your D.O.T. (Do One Thing) Wall.
Katie: I brought the idea to my principal and fellow District Planning Team members two years ago. It is based on the philosophy that educating students involves more than the dispensing of academic knowledge. Unfortunately, we live in an incentive-based, self-centered world, and I was growing disheartened by the feeling that many of our students were no longer being given the knowledge and encouragement to combat that darkness.
Knowing that kids are visual learners and that they benefit from explicit instruction on behavioral and social concepts, I came up with the idea of using dedicated classroom time to discuss positive character traits and brainstorm ways of expressing compassion through simple unrewarded and unrecognized actions. At designated times throughout the year, our students were encouraged to Do One Thing to make their home, classroom, school, community or world a little better, and they were asked to carry out these small actions without expectation of reward or praise. Students were then asked to anonymously write out a brief description of their love-in-action on a colorful circle (dot) of construction paper. We then hung these dots on a designated D.O.T. Wall in the school.
It is amazing to watch the colored dots take over the length of a hallway over the course of a school year. It restores my faith in humanity to read some of the dots that have been scrawled in our children’s own writing. Slowly but surely, the culture of Eagle View is showing a turn of tides; our kids are beginning to understand words like “generous,” “sympathetic,” “compassionate” and “responsible.”
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Katie: My husband and I can afford to be more generous to the local charities that directly impact the lives of our students. I will be using 10% of my Award money to donate items to the food banks that service the Somerset area; to purchase winter coats, gloves and hats for organizations that distribute them to school-aged children; and to give blankets, pillows, and travel suitcases to local foster kids. After my tithing, I plan on making some practical purchases for my classroom to beef up my student library and to kick-start some sort of (yet-to-be-determined) parent engagement initiative.
With whatever money is left, I’d like to say that I plan on being the picture of responsibility by putting a dent in our home mortgage … but I think I am going to use it instead to take my little family on our first-ever vacation! Both my husband (a fellow teacher) and I grew up in poverty, and we have spent the first 11 years of our marriage being fiscally conservative, paying off our school loans and living within the means of our joint teaching salaries. We have been able to give our three kids, Lennon, Van, and Rosalita, a comfortable life, but we’ve never been able to give them much more than season passes to the local amusement park and day trips to the various engaging sites that nearby Pittsburgh has to offer. With the Milken Award, I am thrilled to be able to give them a first-in-our-lifetime true vacation as a repayment for all of the family time they have willingly sacrificed so that their parents can fully engage in their vocations as educators.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Katie: Good, better, best. Never let it rest … until your “good” becomes your “better” and your “better” becomes your “best.”
That is my personal motto (I actually quoted it in my teaching interview at my district 11 years ago!), and it is the philosophy that I strive to instill in my students. Not every kid is destined for straight A’s, but every single student is capable of continually getting better until they reach “their personal best.” Plain and simple, that is my definition of success.
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