Spotlight: Kathryn Daniels (MS '19)April 24, 2020
Fifth-generation teacher Kathryn Daniels (MS ’19) initially pursued a career in medicine, but as she began shadowing doctors, she realized her heart was in the classroom. “In theory, medicine made sense, but in my day-to-day reality, I knew I wanted more,” she says. “I wanted to feel like I was living my purpose.” She won Mississippi’s 2019-20 Milken Educator Award at Petal High School on February 25, 2020.
Milken Family Foundation: You’re known for integrating reading and writing into your history classes. How do these disciplines work together?
Kathryn Daniels (MS ’19): I have always believed that teaching reading and writing—providing the fundamental skills of literate individuals—should never be confined to the ELA classroom. Every discipline can and should explore the elements of disciplinary literacy unique to their content area. Reading and writing in “real life” beyond the classroom will look different for every student, and I believe all teachers are responsible for helping students think critically about their discipline before expressing their understanding in multiple modes. Multiple-choice assessments can only tell so much, but a student’s capacity to read, write and discuss can provide evidence of skill and content mastery.
History is interpretation and argumentation, and I cannot imagine teaching it without teaching students how to examine and write from primary and secondary sources. I want students to leave my class with much more than historical knowledge and trivia. I want them to become student historians who can think critically, provide evidence from the past as well as from texts, and argue constructively. This will provide them with the lifelong skills they need to be the contributing citizens and employees that will make this world a better place.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Kathryn: My pathway was a bit unconventional. Having grown up in a family of educators—I am a fifth-generation teacher—many people assumed I would become one too. I was my mother’s “mini me” and I loved helping others learn, even as a student in elementary and high school.
However, my stubbornness got in the way a bit. I knew I wanted to work in a service-oriented field, but I decided that I wanted to be different, to blaze my own trail. Out of high school, I initially pursued a career in medicine, but on-the-job shadowing quickly showed me that my heart simply was not in it. In theory, medicine made sense, but in my day-to-day reality, I knew I wanted more; I wanted to feel like I was living my purpose.
I began to reconsider education during my sophomore year in college as I visited my mother’s classroom and looked with fresh eyes at everything from her pedagogy to her relationships with her students. My decision to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in history with a minor in English literature was sealed during a semester spent studying abroad in London; I decided then that I would immediately pursue a Master’s of Education upon graduation.
Since that pivotal decision, life has flown by! I have been fortunate to experience teaching both English and social studies to students from sixth to eleventh grades. I firmly believe that my untraditional route to teaching has enabled me to have both the practical and theoretical experience I needed to be the educator I am today.
MFF: How did your first year of teaching go?
Kathryn: My first year of teaching was 2011, and I taught eighth grade English at Pearl Junior High School in Pearl, Mississippi. I was fortunate to be able to navigate that challenging and rewarding year alongside my husband, then a math educator (he’s now an administrator). He had taught for two years at a small religious school, but this was his first year in a public school. We supported one another professionally and emotionally as we learned about the adolescent mind, sponsored school clubs (him: robotics, me: yearbook), and spent our evenings planning lessons.
My social studies methods teacher in college, Mrs. Martha Hutson, had emphasized a quote that resonated with me throughout that year and still inspires me on difficult days. Parker Palmer, an educator and author, stated in The Courage to Teach, “We teach who we are.” My first year of teaching was all about discovering what that quote meant for me. I had many role models and many visions of what I thought I could accomplish as an educator, but I have since learned that teaching is an intensely personal craft; no two teachers are quite the same. The angst I felt attempting to emulate others gradually fell away as I discovered my own purpose for teaching, and I became more confident in not only what I could teach, but also what I could inspire within young people.
MFF: What do you like about high school students?
Kathryn: Teaching high school is both challenging and very rewarding. As adolescents and young adults, high schoolers experience so many changes that I feel honored to help them navigate. Tenth grade is an especially significant “growing up” year full of angst and insecurity, and while it is not for everyone, I cherish the opportunities I have to not only teach skills and content, but also help shape mindsets and facilitate students’ goal-setting for life. My favorite aspect of teaching this age group is getting to hear from former students a few years down the road. When they contact me or come to visit me, I can witness the fruit of my work in the flesh as they share success stories and communicate confidently about their life experiences and goals.
MFF: Tell us about your work with the South Mississippi Writing Project. Why is building writing skills so important to you?
Kathryn: I believe that the ability to write—to harness language for a particular purpose and audience—is empowering. Every person deserves to have a voice and to be able to use that voice in an informed, skillful and productive fashion within society. The National Writing Project (NWP), and by extension the South Mississippi Writing Project (SMWP), is a collaborative effort by classroom educators to improve the instruction of writing at all grade levels, empowering students with the personal agency that comes through literacy.
The NWP and SMWP are driven by the motto of “teachers leading teachers,” and all of the professional development offered is teacher-created and sustained. Through my involvement in local site work with the SMWP, I have been able to hone my own craft as an educator by learning from veteran teachers in my area as part of an intense two-week summer institute and ongoing professional learning. I have had the opportunity to help others grow as well while working as part of a special initiative of the NWP—the College, Career, and Community Writing Program (C3WP). My favorite aspect of working with the program was getting to partner with teachers in a neighboring rural school district. We shared best practices and uplifted one another through the structures provided by the C3WP as we planned lessons and evaluated student writing for evidence of their learning. It was incredibly fulfilling to be able to help other educators while also growing professionally myself.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Kathryn: My chief inspiration has always been my mother. Although she taught elementary school and eventually became an administrator, we are cut from the same cloth. I have not only inherited her disposition and appearance, but also her passion for teaching reading and writing. Watching her challenge, motivate, and love students through the years has given me a clear vision of the type of teacher I want to be, and she still gives me advice and insight on lessons and instructional strategies to this day.
Another very important role model was my favorite teacher and mentor in high school, “Coach” Si Thompson. Coach taught AP European History and AP U.S. History in the same classroom I teach in today. Every day when I turn on my classroom lights and look around, I remember how he challenged me intensely as a thinker and supported me relentlessly on a personal level. We are still close, and I was fortunate to teach alongside him for a few years before his retirement.
A common denominator in the educators who have inspired me is a dual passion for both content/craft and the student’s personal growth. These role models challenged me and stretched my limits, but they also built me back up through encouragement. This is the kind of educator I strive to be.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Kathryn: I had an almost out-of-body experience! The buildup and excitement created by Mr. Greg Gallagher was wonderful, and I was ready to celebrate for one my colleagues. One moment I was sitting in anticipation, and the next moment I was shocked to realize that Dr. Carey Wright, our state superintendent, had called out my name!
Looking around and seeing the smiles on my students’ and friends’ faces as I walked toward Dr. Wright and Mr. Gallagher will forever be one of my favorite memories. I was still struggling to mentally process the magnitude of the moment, but emotionally I could feel the full weight of my school community’s support and love. I am incredibly honored and humbled to have received this distinction, and I look forward to the opportunities it will afford me to be an educational advocate in my community, state and nation.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Kathryn: My favorite aspect of my Milken Award notification and the immediate aftermath was getting to celebrate with my students, both current and former. They were my biggest encouragers and cheerleaders, and they had so many questions! As you would expect, they wanted to know how I planned to spend the Award money, but they also had so many questions about the Award itself and about my past experiences as a teacher.
Students were very affected by the spotlight the Milken Award brought to the stellar education happening at my school and within my district. It was as if they had already internalized what the moment meant for all of us. Many students wanted to speak with me more about why I chose to become a teacher, the pathway I took, and what I found to be both fulfilling and challenging about being an educator. These were truly the best moments—getting to share my passion with potential educators and seeing their eyes light up with possibility.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Kathryn: My husband and I have agreed that we want to use it to somehow reinvest in education as well as to meet some personal goals. At present, I plan to use the $25,000 to pursue a doctorate in curriculum and instruction within the next few years. Although I am very happy as a high school teacher, I have always envisioned my “next step” to be entering post-secondary education and working at the college level.
Over the years, I have relished opportunities working with pre-service and new teachers through practicum, student-teaching, and professional learning community settings. It is my dream to be able to contribute to the field by teaching education classes to both new and seasoned teachers and supporting them through challenging field experiences. Teacher recruitment and retention are very important issues to me, and I hope to use my future in education to address the teacher shortage we are experiencing in our state.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Kathryn: “Success” for me means goals-based growth, but that has not always been the case. Drawing upon Carol Dweck’s theories regarding “fixed” and “growth” mindsets, I have undergone much self-discovery through the years about my own mindset. As a student, I was an achiever and a perfectionist—but I had a fixed mindset, believing that those achievements (or failures) defined me. Minor setbacks would often frustrate, deflate, and derail me. Through investment of mentors and life experience, I came to realize the error in my own thinking.
My own success should be measured by progress, through hard work and reflection, towards personalized and meaningful goals. This epiphany has shaped my educational philosophy as I see the same struggle in many of my high-achieving students. I hope that they leave my classroom with more than historical knowledge or literacy skills. I want them to appreciate their own self-worth and to measure success in terms of hard-earned growth rather than numerical achievement.
MFF: What lessons do you hope your students take away from their time with you?
Kathryn: I have many lessons that I hope my students internalize, many of which are tailored to the specific needs of the students in my care at a given time. However, I hope to teach all of my students a few pivotal truths:
- Each and every student is worthy, capable and strong. They might have different strengths, interests and gifts, but they are all important. Their voices matter not only to me, but to society at large. As such…
- …their ability to argue constructively and engage in civil discourse is crucial to the success of our democracy and civilization. What we do in class in terms of reading, writing, argumentation and discussion is about so much more than the static past. The experiences I am providing them are geared to help them find their voice and their passion so that they can impact the present and change the future. Therefore…
- …academic knowledge and interpersonal skills, when merged, will enable them to lead and serve effectively in society. It is not enough to be intelligent and skillful; students must be able to exhibit empathy and compassion as they navigate the inevitable conflicts of life in an informed, respectful fashion. Teaching, modeling and practicing constructive collaboration is a very important lesson for me.
In my classroom, these processes (reading and writing) are as natural as breathing because they are woven into everything we do. We begin each class with a writing warmup, many times based upon a text, through which students are given a chance to review previous content and express their understanding and/or arguments about that content via the written word. We then hold brief partner, table and class discussions to follow up on that writing and rehearse speaking and listening skills. Sometimes we even critique the writer’s craft and effectiveness. Throughout the lesson, we return to source analysis and informative as well as argumentative writing and discussion. I am very passionate about this because I know that these skills provide students with the avenues they need to make the content come alive, to solidify their understanding and to transfer classroom knowledge to real-world settings.
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