Spotlight: Rachel O'Kelley (NC '19)March 3, 2020
Games figure prominently in the curriculum of science teacher Rachel O’Kelley (NC ’19) because they keep students engaged: “In my classroom, competition drives learning.” Rachel won North Carolina’s 2019-20 Milken Educator Award at Edenton’s John A. Holmes High School on February 4, 2020.
Milken Family Foundation: What do you like about high school students?
Rachel O’Kelley (NC ’19): High school is definitely where I belong. To begin with, I just love the science content in high school. Biology and chemistry are both passions of mine and I cannot imagine not teaching them. I also love the connections and relationships that you can build with older students.
MFF: You place a strong focus on scientific vocabulary in your classroom. Why is this important?
Rachel: When I was first teaching, I found that students could discuss science with me verbally, but they found it harder to write down their responses on assessments. A lot of that stemmed from not truly knowing what the question was asking for or being thrown off by a few words they didn’t understand. I have since focused on intentional questioning in my daily lessons to prepare them.
MFF: Students love your science games—the “dating game” for atoms, the catapult competitions. How do games keep students engaged and lead to deeper learning?
Rachel: I have found that if I put any content in a game format, students have more buy-in. Regardless of how well thought out my lesson plans and activities are, if a student is bored and disengaged they will not master the content. In my classroom, competition drives learning.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Rachel: I became an educator because of the example two of my high school teachers set for me, Mrs. Sherlton Broadnax and Mrs. Sonya Rinehart. Learning was so fun and engaging in their classrooms, yet rigorous! I also truly remember the feeling of being loved and accepted for who I was and where I was academically in their class. I want to do that for students.
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
Rachel: I vividly remember my first day and that first period class that walked in. I had been warned by other teachers about this particular class and the students in it. I am not going to lie—I struggled the first couple of weeks and even months. I continued to maintain my expectations and felt like everything I was doing was a fight. Slowly, things became easier. The students understood and met my expectations.
The guidance staff and administration at my high school helped me through this period of transitioning between being a student teacher and being alone in my classroom. At the time, our guidance department was full of veteran teachers and they were located right across the hallway from me. All I had to do was give them a call and one of them would come running to help me! I remember running my day by them during many afternoons and asking them how I could improve or avoid certain situations.
Our administrative team always supported me and guided me in the right direction. Sheila Evans was my principal at the time and she is awesome at teaching teachers. She always gave me helpful feedback on how to improve my lessons. I truly believe she is the main reason that my teaching is as rigorous as it is.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Rachel: I was completely shocked. I remember conversing with the students next to me about which teachers it might be. When the state superintendent announced my name I had to clarify with the students that he did actually say “Rachel O’Kelley.” They gave me a gentle nudge and said “That’s you, Mrs. O’Kelley. Get up!”
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Rachel: The students have been very proud of me. I had hugs, cards, Facebook posts, etc. from current and former students. I remember when the shock of everything had worn off a bit the night of my Award notification I sat down and opened Facebook. I had tears of joy rolling down my face at some of the kind things that my students said about me.
I do think that the Award has had a lasting impact on them. They realize that hard work and doing the right thing, even when there are easier ways out, pay off in the long run and recognition always comes when you least expect it.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Rachel: I plan to set aside a large portion of the money to start a college fund for my children. I have a two-year-old and am set to deliver another little girl in April. I will use the remaining funds towards the home addition we are just starting starting.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Rachel: For me, success is student growth, not proficiency. I always have a feeling of pride when a student masters content that they thought was out of their range of possibilities. I love that moment when we can high five or say, “You did it!”
MFF: What lessons do you hope your students take away from their time with you?
Rachel: I hope that students know that they can succeed at anything that they set their mind to. I hope that they know that I truly care about them outside of the classroom.
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