Spotlight: Kristen Musgrove (FL '19)March 2, 2020
Kristen Musgrove (FL ’19) tells her sixth-graders at Hilliard Middle-Senior High School that she will be their “at school Momma,” pushing them to work hard and fighting for them when necessary: “They know when they walk in my room they are loved, no matter what.” She won Florida’s 2019-20 Milken Educator Award on February 5, 2020.
Milken Family Foundation: You are known as a supportive mentor for new teachers. Why is this role important?
Kristen Musgrove (FL ’19): Your first couple of years can be really tough. Many issues arise that aren’t covered in your college classes and leave you wondering, “What in the world do I do now?”
When these things happen I want to be there to support and encourage my fellow teachers. I want them to know: “You can do this. Yes, it may be tough, but you will get through it. We’ve all been there.” New teachers should feel like they are not alone and that someone else is walking in the trenches with them. Teacher retention isn’t very high and I want to do my part in fixing the problem. I had someone there to support me in those first years and feel I can be that for someone else.
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
Kristen: It was definitely a year I will never forget. I was teaching at the elementary school I had attended as a child. I was a nervous wreck on the first day, knowing parents were trusting a young 23-year-old to educate and keep safe those 20 little people.
The year went pretty well. Don’t get me wrong, there were several challenges and many tears shed. But those students are very special to me. One boy would bring me pictures of the deer he killed and the catfish he caught. I’d hang them on my office board and his face would light up. I realized it was the little things I did that made the students want to work hard. Just last year, he got married and invited me to the wedding.
That year I leaned fully on veteran teacher Monica Cason. There is no way I could have done it without her. She was a constant encouragement when times were tough. She listened, advised and pushed me to always be better.
When I moved to middle school it was a whole new ball game. I went from teaching fourth grade to eighth grade, a huge adjustment. It was my first year all over again, but tougher! I cried so many times that year, way more than my very first year. I remember crying to my principal around Christmas, being totally transparent on how my year was going. I was ready to go back to elementary school, but my principal reminded me that I was not a quitter. Again, Monica Cason was there to support me and tell me I could do it. I made it through that year and am thankful that I stuck it out because I love teaching middle school, though I questioned that decision when I first began.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Kristen: I absolutely loved my senior English teacher, Tasha Drake. She always made class engaging and exciting. She was laid back in the classroom but pushed us to work hard. We laughed a lot and learned in the process. Mrs. Drake not only wanted to see me succeed in the classroom, but also on the softball field, track and basketball court. She was my track coach and helped me get to state my junior and senior years. We shared many memories that I will never forget.
Janet Conner was my Biology, Anatomy and Physiology teacher in high school. She was tough, to say the least, but I learned how to study in her class. Whether she knows it or not, I believe her class taught me how to manage my time, create great study habits and push myself beyond what I thought I was capable of. She definitely prepared me for college.
When I first started teaching, Monica Cason was someone I looked up to and strove to be like. She was the grade level chair and the experienced teacher in my pod. I specifically remember asking her about a certain situation in my classroom. She provided advice and of course it worked out. I asked her how she knew what to do, and she said, “When you have your own personal children, you will fully understand and know how to handle things.” Those words stuck with me. From then on, I treated each child as my very own and looked at situations differently, from a mother’s perspective. I believe wholeheartedly that this is what made me a better teacher. To this day, Monica is one of my very best friends.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Kristen: For as long as I can remember I have loved children. As a small child I absolutely loved being around babies. In high school I began dreaming of being a pediatric nurse.
I began college pursuing a nursing degree. I had taken all the prerequisites and just needed to apply to nursing school. I was playing college softball at the time at Florida Community College of Jacksonville and was offered a scholarship to play out of state at Lambuth University in Tennessee. Unfortunately, that university didn't have a nursing program.
I transferred to Lambuth and changed my major to education. It ended up being the best decision! I had no doubt that I wanted to work with children and teaching seemed to be the best fit. I absolutely loved school as a kid, so why not make a career out of it? As I progressed through college and took more classes toward my teaching degree, I knew teaching was exactly what I was meant to do.
MFF: What do you like about middle school students?
Kristen: Middle school is such an awkward time in a child’s life. They are trying to figure out who they are, who their real friends are. They go through so many changes in such a short time. I enjoy being a consistent factor at school. They know when they walk in my room they are loved no matter what and that I am there to encourage them along the way. Some have sat and poured out their heart, cried over situations they couldn’t control or wanted advice on how they could handle a situation. Being that person for them at school brings me such joy. I tell them that I will be their “at school Momma,” making sure they try their hardest in whatever is asked of them and fighting for them if needed.
MFF: Why did you start your after-school “math camp”?
Kristen: Our school was offering tutoring three mornings each week, but we noticed that many of those students weren’t there for math. We wanted to offer an “invitation only” math camp on our early release Wednesdays to targeted students we knew we could push, or those who just needed extra support. Our main goal was to strengthen their math skills, but knew we had to find a way to get them to attend. Food is always a motivator, so we offered a snack each week: popcorn, soda, ice cream sundaes, milk and cookies, ice cream sandwiches. The treats gave them a reason to come.
To strengthen students’ skills, we played math games that focused on certain concepts we knew needed the most work. Each week they played several games covering different skills. When a student won a game, of course they won a prize. Students would rotate to different games throughout the hour and then enjoy the snack before heading home. Attendance grew as the weeks passed and the students’ skills improved. We ran the program for several weeks prior to state testing and plan to do the same this year.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Kristen: We were told that the assembly was to celebrate our school’s scores. Administration kept everything very hush-hush so, honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. We just knew some very important people would be on campus. When I walked into the gym and saw the camera crew I knew something big was going to happen, but I still didn’t know what that was.
Right before they announced the winner, I remember thinking of several other teachers at our school who could possibly get the Award. Then they announced MY name. I was in complete shock! I couldn’t keep the tears from flowing and was thinking it was all a dream. Then I remember telling myself, “Stand up. You have to stand up and walk to the front of the gym.”
MFF: How have students responded to your Milken Award?
Kristen: My students were extremely excited. They kept telling me how proud they were and wanted to know if I could take my big check to the bank. Coworkers told me there was a buzz of joy and excitement around campus throughout that day. The majority of the students who attend our school have sat in my classroom. My students wrote me notes on our Google Classroom page. Several former students came by to tell me that they “ugly cried” when they announced my name. Even now, when I stand outside my classroom between classes, students still congratulate me.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Kristen: My children have been begging to go on another cruise. As soon as they found out that I won the money they asked about a cruise. We plan to take them next summer. We will also use some of the money to pay off medical bills from my daughter’s appendicitis. We may just hang on to the rest for now.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Kristen: In my life, success is watching my students succeed. To see them take on and thrive through middle and high school, even with bumps along the way, makes me feel like I have done my job well. Success isn’t about state assessment scores (though I love seeing students ace those exams). It’s about knowing I have done my very best at showing them that I care and love them for who they are.
For my students, success is when they overcome even the smallest obstacles. Maybe that one concept that is causing a lot of frustration for them, or that one problem they are struggling to figure out. It’s that “light bulb” moment you see on their face and the smile that comes with it. I don’t believe a child is considered successful just because they got an A or answered the hardest question. It’s when they keep trying when times get tough, and not giving up when they want to quit. These times prove that they will be very successful in life despite circumstances they may face.
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