Spotlight: Shelly Gaughan (TN '18)January 11, 2019
Kindergarten teacher Shelly Gaughan (TN ’18) never thought about becoming an educator until she spent a week teaching ancient civilizations to sixth-graders as part of a high school career discovery program: “I found myself intrigued with the challenge of making this content relevant and exciting.” She won her Milken Educator Award at East End Prep in Nashville on October 25, 2018.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Shelly Gaughan: As I was listening to Mr. [Lowell] Milken talk about his deep respect for the teaching profession, I thought of all my colleagues, mentors and past teachers who exemplified the virtues he spoke of: women and men who were generous, compassionate and smart. And I was thinking of how special it was to hear someone who truly saw the kind of people I see in action every day and how someone I knew could be recognized in such a public manner.
When my name was called, it really didn’t register because I had already thought of another colleague and friend I knew it was going to be. Then I had so many people calling my name and cheering and so much noise, I became quickly overwhelmed. When it began to sink in, I remember feeling humbled that so many people were around to talk to me.
MFF: How did your students respond to your Milken Award?
Shelly: I teach kindergarten, so a lot of the questions about the notification were more like, “Why were there so many cameras?” or “Can I take a picture too?” I have also received lots of hugs and “I’m proud of you” and “I love you” from my current students. The response from my former students has also been incredibly moving. A lot of them have told me they didn’t realize teachers could be recognized in such a public manner. They have shared so many sweet, funny stories of what they remembered from kindergarten and how having me as a teacher has provided them with special memories.
MFF: What made you decide to teach?
Shelly: Growing up, I didn’t think about teaching, despite my love of babysitting, tutoring and camp counseling. My desire to teach stemmed from two things. First, during my senior year in high school, all seniors were offered a week-long opportunity to try out a job we were interested in. Initially, I was going to try a week at a local newspaper because I thought I might be interested in journalism. But at the encouragement of one of my teachers, I applied for a teaching opportunity. I was tasked with teaching ancient civilizations to a sixth-grade class. I loved it. I found myself intrigued with the challenge of making this content relevant and exciting for the class I was with. I appreciated the opportunity that my high school gave me to try out something before committing to a major that I would have had no exposure to upon my arrival at college.
My second inspiration was my mom. My mom has been a teacher for 17 years, but it wasn’t her first career. Before my family’s move to Nashville, my mom was an x-ray technician in Chicago. She enjoyed her work but didn’t think of it as a passion. In Nashville my mom found a job as a preschool teacher at a local church daycare. Realizing that she loved serving and learning alongside children, she made the choice to enroll in an education program through Belmont University. She went back to school while working full-time and raising two middle-schoolers. She then became a fourth-grade teacher in a Catholic school. Seeing how much my mom is motivated every day to provide her kids with meaningful learning activities has inspired me to challenge and push myself to be better each day. She works tirelessly to research best practices and create activities, centers and projects that engage children. She’s made it a personal goal to invest her students with positive growth mindsets, where she incorporates goal-setting, mantra-building and reflection time. I’m constantly in awe of how much she works to make her kids’ educational experiences rigorous and memorable. She is truly the best teacher I’ve ever known.
MFF: Why did you choose kindergarten?
Shelly: I was really captivated by my school’s mission to provide a well-rounded education for the whole child. I thought I would teach upper elementary, but the opening here was a kindergarten position. I jumped on it and have been here ever since. I appreciate helping build foundational skills that lay the groundwork for what I hope is a lifelong passion for learning.
MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?
Shelly: In addition to my mom, my sister is also a fourth-grade teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools. She constantly challenges herself to use innovative and research-based strategies to support her students’ learning and has worked hard to be a partner to families. She is a Girls on the Run coach, attends almost every recital or game, and works hard to make learning accessible through resource creation and tutoring for her class. Some of my best friends are teachers for a range of grades or work as recruiters and coaches. I’m inspired by all of their commitments to making children’s educational experiences meaningful and teaching the whole child.
MFF: What was your first year like?
Shelly: My first year of teaching was a doozy. I worked at a small school teaching second grade. There were few instructional supports or resources. But the staff was scrappy and committed to providing students with meaningful and diverse learning experiences. There were two other first-year teachers in kindergarten and first grade. We would often sit together with our curriculum binders, lesson plans and resources and help each other make centers, craft parent letters, and align our curriculum so content would flow from year to year. We had a lot of freedom to do what we felt was best for students; it was both liberating and scary to realize how trusted we were as the educational experts. All of us only stayed that one year because different opportunities presented themselves, but I’m so grateful for their partnership. They taught me so much about organization, collaboration and flexibility.
MFF: Tell us about the Volunteer Corps Club. Why is service learning important for your school’s youngest students?
Shelly: The Volunteer Corps sprang from a desire to promote service within our students. When you ask adults why they volunteer or choose a profession of service, they often say it enriches their lives to know they help the greater good; service provides a purpose for us. Children are usually in the position of being served. I thought it could be powerful for children to see that it really doesn’t matter how old you are or whether you have money—you can still help a cause that means something to you.
With the help of a former colleague, I crafted about eight different causes for our club that touched on a variety of interests. We made felt blankets for the homeless, created care packages for overseas deployed military, picked up trash at a local park, and caroled at a local nursing home over the holidays. We specifically chose to make it a club for kindergarten, first grade and second grade because we wanted our youngest kids to see that they could serve a cause that meant something to them. It also helped us to teach that we can all connect to others and show consideration for the community around us. It was one of my favorite projects in my career.
MFF: You introduced a new phonics program to your reading curriculum. Why?
Shelly: I was recently trained in the Orton-Gillingham approach and it has been amazing! As a K-2 grade band, we had noticed that our students were gaining great traction with comprehension and making strong connections between text and schema, but the actual mechanics of reading, especially fluency and decoding, were growth areas. After a few other staff members went to this training, I was selected to go. I appreciated learning a methodology that scaffolded phonemic awareness and phonics in a thoughtful trajectory. In rolling out the trajectory, we have noticed students meeting benchmarks quickly and gaps are closing.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Shelly: I haven’t quite decided.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Shelly: Success is an ever-changing mindset for me. Earlier in my career I think I would have said that if students leave on or above benchmark, they have successfully completed their year and I’ve done my job. But teaching is the business of helping shape people, and I’m not sure that work is ever done.
Now I think my success reflects how much my students love coming to school and how invested they are in achieving their goals. Success looks like students growing in their independence and problem-solving ability. Success looks like my students growing in their interpersonal relationships and developing their vulnerabilities. Success looks like being considerate of my children, my team and my community. Being humble and remembering that the most important people in the school are the kids. Having good humor and rolling with the punches and laughing a lot and enjoying each other. If I continue to work towards those things, I will be striving for success.
I often tell my kids, families and school community that I’m not a parent (home mom) yet, but I am a school mom. What does any parent want for their children? Health, prosperity, a college education and/or a career that fulfills them. So when I think about success, I wish for my school children a lifelong love of learning and questioning. I wish for them the skills to embrace challenges and seek solutions. I wish for them to have purpose and to find what is best to fulfill that. And above all, I wish for them to be considerate, humble, and have good humor. That’s a future worth working towards and having.
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