Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Kelly Sutcliffe (HI '16)

March 21, 2017

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Hawaii Milken Educator Kelly Sutcliffe (HI '16) knows teachers are underpaid and overworked, but she believes more will stay in education when they're reminded that teaching is a labor of love: "If you keep the kids at the front of your mind and think about the direct impact you can have on their future, then all of the other stuff doesn't seem to matter." Kelly received her Award at Jefferson Elementary in Honolulu on February 2, 2017.

Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?

Kelly Sutcliffe: I had some amazing teachers in elementary and high school who influenced me at a young age. They were great role models and had a huge impact on me. I always hoped that one day I would be able to do the same.

MEA: Why elementary school?

Kelly: I love kids! I love their innocence, honesty and unpredictability. Every day is new and exciting, and you never know what you need to be prepared for. I enjoy hearing their ideas and opinions about the world. The most frustrating thing is their current, modern pop culture influence. I'm so over "the Dab."

MEA: What was your first job?

Kelly: Waiting tables at a restaurant called "The Chicken or the Egg." I definitely benefited from the fast-paced environment, interaction with people (good and bad), and being able to multitask! I also worked the late-night shift, and dealing with intoxicated adults is quite similar to dealing with children. Those skills have come in handy in the classroom.

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MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?

Kelly: There are too many to name! I loved Mrs. Massimiano, my third-grade teacher. She always found fun ways to engage us. We did a lot of hands-on projects, plays, and learning through games and songs. She was also extremely caring and compassionate, and treated her students like family.

MEA: Any educators in your family?

Kelly: My aunt has been a teacher in New Jersey for many years. She was always extremely intelligent and a huge "go-getter." I always admired her wealth of knowledge and ambition to pursue her master's and doctorate degrees.

MEA: Which subjects did you like (or not)?

Kelly: My hands-down favorite was math. I originally planned to get an actuarial degree. I got my master's in math and really enjoy teaching it through real-world applications. I also really enjoy science. I like anything that involves problem-solving.

My least favorite was reading. I loved reading for pleasure, but not for school. I struggled with "forced" reading of novels due to lack of interest.

MEA: Tell us about your first class.

Kelly: My first class was extremely challenging. Everything took me by surprise! I also had just moved 5,000 miles away from home. I had a huge class of 36 sixth-graders, seven of whom were Special Education. I was warned on the first day of school that one child was in the middle of a due process case and I would have to go to court. Aside from behavior challenges, I had to create my own curriculum, attend countless IEP meetings, and yes, go to court. The whole year I felt like I was drowning. I even almost moved right back to New Jersey. It was a rough first year! I can honestly say that every other year has been a breeze, and it certainly has made me a stronger teacher today.

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MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?

Kelly: I think many of them have been inspired to work to their fullest potential. Hard work gets rewarded, and they are able to see that firsthand. I have received such positive feedback from students, staff, parents, and friends regarding the Milken Award. I have also gotten emails and Facebook messages from past students (even from my first class), saying how proud they are of me and how I had made an impact on them. There is no better feeling than that.

MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?

Kelly: I hope my students remember how much I care about each of them. I am always looking out for their best interests and genuinely want them to be successful and happy at school. I frequently ask them for feedback and advice, and I give them many choices to ensure they are taking an active part in their education. I spend a lot of extra time with them after school (tutoring, running club), and on the weekends (supporting their events, attending school functions). I hope they remember me as more than just their teacher, but as a nurse, counselor, coach, friend, or any other role I've had to step into over the years.

MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?

Kelly: I talk to my students' parents; daily, either in person, by email, or even via text message. Parents know I am very approachable and open to having them involved whenever they want. I currently have one student's mom helping during our math block every day. Parents come in for special activities, parties and presentations. In Hawaii, parents view the teacher as ohana [family] and treat you as if you are part of their family. They often invite me to family functions as well! It sends a nice message to students, showing them that parents and teachers are partners in their education.

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MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?

Kelly: I enjoy our afternoon block when we teach science. I can be less structured and stray from our set curriculum. I am able to use my creativity and come up with some neat real-world problems for the kids to solve. They are also the most engaged during this time since it is all hands-on.

MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?

Kelly: I have a good number of non-English-speaking students each year and it is very difficult to teach them at grade level and communicate with them. I have to modify their work and use a combination of pictures and Google Translate to get them involved in the lesson. I also have gotten really good at charades and miming—I'm sure they all think I'm crazy!

MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?

Kelly: First, I would install air-conditioning units in every class, because our school does not have AC and it gets very hot! I would hire more teachers to lower class sizes in every grade. I would create more after-school programs for the students. I would also ensure one-to-one technology for every grade level. Maybe I would treat everyone at Jefferson Elementary to a nice, well-deserved vacation!

MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?

Kelly: Making more money! I would probably be an engineer or something that involves problem-solving, design, and numbers. I'm also passionate about animals and the environment, and I enjoy spending time outdoors, so anything biology-related would be right up my alley.

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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?

Kelly: Sadly, I think pay has a great deal to do with it. I don't think anyone realizes how much teachers work, unless you are one yourself. Low salaries drive a lot of teachers out of the profession. Also, far too much standardized testing, and lots of restrictions on what and how we teach. If teachers were given more freedom and the ability to use their professional judgment on how to teach, I feel more would stay.

I think we need to encourage others by reinforcing the fact that teaching is a labor of love. If you keep the kids at the front of your mind and think about the direct impact you can have on their future, then all of the other stuff doesn't seem to matter.

MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."

Kelly: ...when my students don't want to leave school at the end of the day.


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