Spotlight: Kristi Becker Yulich (KS '22)February 13, 2023
Kristi Becker Yulich (KS ’22) encourages her fourth graders to measure their success by thinking about where they started and where they are now: “That way our failures aren’t the end — they are steps toward progress.” She received Kansas’ Milken Award at Logan Elementary in Topeka on January 18, 2023.
Milken Family Foundation: What do you like about working with elementary students?
Kristi Becker Yulich (KS ’22): I love teaching them math and reading, but also life lessons and how to be a positive role model. I can teach them about being kind and showing empathy as well as how to have a growth mindset and challenge themselves to be lifelong learners. Fourth graders are still young enough to play along when I dress up as “Professor Beaker” but independent enough to do project-based learning activities without much teacher direction.
MFF: You are known as a master of classroom transformations. How does this support your students’ learning?
Kristi: Classroom transformations bring a new level of engagement and learning into the classroom environment. Many times we can’t take students to places we are learning about, but we can bring what we are learning about into our classrooms. No matter what the transformation is, you can count on the whole room transforming, the sights, sounds and even smells of the room!
It began when we did Reading Day and turned my classroom into a campout. We were in the forest, so it smelled like pine trees, and you could hear the birds chirping. When teaching about government, I turned the classroom into a courtroom, with students taking on different roles — jury, defendants, bailiff — and I was the judge. ForCrime Scene Day, students became detectives like “Jess Solved” or “Dustin Prints,” and each group solved math and reading questions to collect clues. I also put together an Oregon Trail simulation experience where the students’ desks turn into covered wagons and they are led on the Oregon Trail by Pioneer Patty (me of course!). When we studied the early pioneers, students created colonies and had to search for items they needed to survive.
When I do classroom transformations, I see a decrease in behavior problems and redirections. Students don’t realize they are learning, but their test scores increase and they gain a deeper understanding of the material. Students also tell me that they want school to be like this all the time and they never want to leave. Higher test scores and decreased behavior issues are reason enough to do transformations, but to have students who usually don’t like school love learning again and never want the lesson to end — that’s the most powerful and meaningful reason.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Kristi: I have wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. I feel like it has been my life’s purpose to be an educator. I played school in my grandmother’s basement with an ironing board as a desk. I would teach my grandma what I had learned at school that day and even give her homework and report cards. That is where my passion for teaching was sparked, and she continued to encourage me to pursue my dream.
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
Kristi: This is my 10th year of teaching — same school, same grade, even the same room — but so much has changed. My first year, I remember being so overjoyed to have my own classroom and students. I learned so much in that first year about classroom management, about curriculum, and about myself as an educator.
My favorite moments were when I could sit with a child and talk about life, ask about their feelings, cheer them up, or just get to hear about their day. I started classroom traditions that I still maintain today. I remember telling myself that I needed to always remember what it feels like to be a kid. The curriculum is so important, but even then, I knew that the relationships I built with my kids and taking time to listen was just as important.
MFF: Tell us about Logan’s STEM fair.
Kristi: I started the STEM fair in my second or third year of teaching. I spoke with my principal and he told me to go for it! We began with about 15 projects. We had lots of crystals and volcanoes in the beginning, but this year, with our biggest STEM Fair ever, we have about 35 projects, including staying safe in a tsunami, bacteria growth, plant growth and robotics.
Community members come in to talk about how they use STEM in their careers, including people from Evergy, University Animal Clinic, Starbase, Washburn University and the Topeka Zoo. Students can take something they are interested in and learn how they can make a difference for future generations by pursuing careers connected to what they created. The STEM Fair encourages students to learn outside of the classroom curriculum and to be creative. It takes them out of the textbooks and into real world investigations.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Kristi: I enjoyed all the teachers I have had and believe that every one of them shaped me into the educator I am today. I struggled in school and learning didn't always come easily for me. I repeated second grade, and reading specialist Deb Larson would pull me to work on reading skills. In college, she became one of my professors and my advisor in the elementary education department at Emporia State. She got to see me grow from the little girl who struggled into an educator.
In high school I struggled in math, especially algebra. Mr. Nicks [Brad Nicks KS ’09] was so supportive. He made math more engaging and understandable. He helped me believe in my own abilities. I then decided to try college algebra and had Mrs. McGlinn who also was such an inspiration. She was so caring and compassionate and I felt like she believed in me. She showed me that I was capable of more than I realized. In college, Dr. Seimears sparked my interest in and excitement for teaching science and STEM. I am inspired by teachers who supervised my student teaching as well as those currently in my building. There are so many educators who were positive role models in my life and career. I can’t name them all, but I wouldn’t be where I am without their guidance, support and compassion.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Kristi: I felt completely honored to receive the Award. It was a dream that I had as an educator to someday get the Milken Award, but I never thought in a million years that it would actually happen to me. I was in complete shock and felt like it just couldn’t be real. Felt like a dream. I just kept thinking, “Is this really happening to me?”
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Kristi: My fourth graders were so excited about the $25,000 and wanted to go to Los Angeles with me. Students I had in previous years that are now in sixth grade gave me so many hugs and were so proud of me. I had students who have graduated or are in high school reach out to me and tell me they were so excited for me and so glad I got the Award. They told me I was still their favorite teacher to this day. I also had students comment on social media about how I had impacted their lives. It was so powerful to have my “kids” from previous years tell me how they are still inspired by me. I love all my “kids” so much. That is the whole reason I do what I do. I do it for them!
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Kristi: I have always been considered an “achiever,” so for myself, I define my own success based on what I accomplish each day. I set goals for myself and create checklists, and when I achieve a goal or check something off my list, I feel that I have been successful or made progress toward my goal.
For my students, I would define success in a few different ways. I believe children need to feel like they have made progress and recognize their own success. That way, when they become adults, they can create their own success and not depend on others to tell them if they are successful. I have my students set goals and graph their data to show their growth. They get to see their academic progress in action.
I also help my students feel success by encouraging them to reflect on where they started and where they are now. I teach them how to use positive self-talk and positive thinking. Growth mindset is an important part of being successful. “At one point, none of us knew how to use a spoon,” I’ll tell them. “It might seem silly now, but at one time that was hard for us. Learning something new in fourth grade may feel hard, but someday you will look back and it will be just like using a spoon.” I teach them that learning hard things and making mistakes helps our brains make new connections and we learn. That kind of mindset helps us be successful because then our failures aren’t the end — they are steps toward progress and growth.
MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?
Kristi: I always tell my students that they will always be one of my “kids.” I am always here for them, even after the school year. I hope they remember that I love each of them and that they are important. I hope that they know that they are enough and worth it. They can do more than they believe — when something is hard, they are strong enough, smart enough and brave enough to accomplish it. I want them to remember that they are cared about and they matter. That they have a purpose in life and they can make a difference in the world. I want them to remember to believe in themselves and never give up because they have what it takes to accomplish their dreams. I hope they always remember the memories we made together. They may not remember the day that they learned long division in class, but I hope they always remember that they have a special place in my heart and are forever one of my kids.
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