Spotlight: Kimberly Freeman (SC '15)March 15, 2016
Kimberly Freeman (SC '15) signed up for a Teacher Cadet course in high school to fill an empty block in her senior year schedule. She never expected it to change the course of her career. Freeman received her Milken Educator Award at Lexington Middle School on February 9, 2016.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?
Kimberly Freeman: I convicted my first criminal at the age of 10 when my fourth-grade class learned about the legal system. I played the role of the prosecuting attorney in a trial for a man accused of stealing. I knew then that I would spend my days in a courtroom. From that moment, I began to make decisions based on those dreams. The classes I chose, the organizations I joined and the passions I pursued all pointed to a career as a lawyer. Yet, somehow, my senior year left me with an isolated block in my schedule that I could fill with only one course: Teacher Cadet. I registered for the class hoping for an easy fix to my schedule — never considering that it would change the direction of my life.
Teacher Cadet is a course in South Carolina designed by the Center for Educator Recruitment and Retention, and is aimed at giving high school seniors the chance to explore education through a practicum experience. The class required a cooperating teacher, and I looked back on my middle school years when I shadowed Tyler, a young man with special needs from my church. With the naïveté and arrogance of youth, I believed I knew how to help students such as Tyler and asked to be paired with a special education teacher in my high school. That semester humbled me in ways I never anticipated. I learned that when I smiled at Tara, a young woman with Down syndrome, I gave her the courage to try something new. I learned that time spent playing a board game with Luke, the victim of a traumatic brain injury, helped him learn to organize his thoughts and plan his day. What I did not know then was that I was learning the power of meeting someone right where they were and helping them move to the next level. I did not know then that I was learning the power of a teacher.
That semester caused me to really consider the impact I wanted to have on the world. As I thought about the people who had influenced me in the deepest ways, I saw the faces of teachers who had poured their lives into mine. I thought about Mrs. Corley, who held a trial in her classroom that made me dream of the possibilities of being an attorney, and about Mrs. Griffen, who asked me to redo a project on the solar system and never accepted mediocrity. Most of all, I thought of Mrs. Reed, a Latin teacher who taught me to think with an open mind and a questioning spirit. Along the way, I realized that my dreams of fighting injustice could play out in a classroom — not a courtroom.
MFF: What was your first job?
Kimberly: Wrapping presents in a department store — the only department store — in my hometown. Family business was always a part of my life growing up, and I worked in this store, owned and run by my aunt, from a pretty early age. Later I worked in my uncle's old country store, packaging gift boxes and preparing many orders to be picked up or mailed around the country. Seeing these family businesses from behind the counter helped me learn how essential hard work and dedication are to growing an individual dream into a collective reality. I think I take that in the classroom each day: hard work, determination, and a pretty fantastic present-wrapping skill set, too.
MFF: Who was your own most memorable teacher?
Kimberly: My Latin teacher, Anne Reed. There is something to be said for the long relationships language teachers often get to build with their students, learning together year after year. In our Latin classroom, those years melded together into a home within the school walls — a place where love and respect reigned supreme, and where we pushed each other to be better each day than the day before. As a teacher today, I finally realize how intentional and purposeful Mrs. Reed was in creating that kind of environment. When I think of her, I remember her quick wit and deep compassion for her students, but also her high expectations and rigorous goals for us. I remember the way she helped me learn to expect greatness in my work and to complete tasks with careful attention to detail and determination to do my very best. Even now, she continues to help me grow into a better version of myself, encouraging my professional endeavors while reminding me of the importance of caring for my family and myself. Though we are physically several states apart now, we are still very close, and I am honored and blessed to continue to learn from her in the great classroom of life.
MFF: Tell us about your first class.
Kimberly: My first class was a train wreck. After finishing the fifth-year requirements for certification in October, I moved home and took the only job I could find – teaching middle school service learning. I left college convinced that I would teach fourth grade for the rest of my life; I had never planned to set foot in a middle school. However, I was getting married the following January and we needed insurance, so I signed a contract and picked up the keys to my portable on the last day of October. My portable sat just across the street from a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant, and the students in the class were known to occasionally head out for lunch during class. With no curriculum and nothing more than a classroom set of Chicken Noodle Soup for the Teenage Soul and a big stack of phone books, I took over the class the next day, November 1. I've often told people that if it hadn't been an election year, there’s a good chance that I never would have had a second day of school. Instead, having November 2 off for Election Day gave me time to renew my determination and collect myself, and I walked back in on November 3 determined to make a difference in Portable 12.
The hardest thing about my first year of teaching was finding contentment in the moment. Always worried about what wasn't working, I forgot to celebrate the small victories. I was so consumed with figuring out how to get back to fourth grade or to a different content area that I forgot that magical moments can happen wherever you are as long as you watch for them. I'm so thankful for that incredibly challenging first year, because I learned that grade level and content do not matter nearly as much as people do.
MFF: A student is thinking about a career in education. What do you say?
Kimberly: There's probably never been a time when we more desperately needed our most passionate students to join us in the trenches of education. Teaching today is not for the faint of heart. But thankfully, our young people today are anything but faint of heart. This generation is resilient, passionate and determined to make a difference in the world around them. And there's no better place to do that in the halls of education.
I believe we are on the cusp of the next great dawn of public education. I believe that democracy as we know it will cease to exist in the absence of 21st-century centers of learning. I believe that authentic learning experiences that require deep thought and an array of soft skills are possible and attainable in the public school classroom. I believe in the power of communities to rally behind our schools and press forward.
The simple reality is that our systems of learning are facing the greatest juxtaposition of deep challenge and unspeakable joy imaginable. This age of information overload is changing the game. We must prepare students for the world they will inherit, not the one that we did. Many of the jobs our students will one day acquire have not yet even been envisioned. To prepare for that, our young people must learn how to think critically and creatively and to approach challenges from varied and new perspectives. That is hard. But it is also so very, very exciting. So I would tell my students just that. Teaching is hard. Education is not a simple profession nor is it a static one. But it is where the greatest promise of the future lies. And it is oh-so-worth the challenge.
MFF: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Kimberly: We cheer for a lot of things in our culture today — but I don't often remember students being front-row guests in a group of people gathered together to cheer for educators. I hope the Award presentation helped students at Lexington Middle School see teachers in a different light. Perhaps, in the midst of the celebration, there were students in the room who thought about how they might one day stand with a microphone in front of the schools where they are teaching and answer those same questions about the roles they are playing in education. Perhaps, for the first time, some envisioned a future as a teacher.
MFF: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Kimberly: Each part of the day has its own special place, but I think those out-of-the-classroom moments are my favorites. Whether we're tuning a guitar before school or working on a science project during lunch, the relationships that grow in the extra moments in the day are my favorite. Some years ago, I made a decision to be intentional in looking for moments to reach out to students and colleagues — walking along the journey of life with them and making sure they know that they matter to me. There are moments that facilitate that during scheduled class time, but seeking out those other moments during the day has been such a blessing in my life.
MFF: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Kimberly: We talk about "closing the achievement gap" a lot in education, but the stark reality is that it is often experiences outside of the school day that make that gap awfully wide. If someone gave me a million dollars to use in my school, I would launch an after-school and summer program that aimed to provide a supportive environment for middle school students who need a safe and age-appropriate place to grow outside of the school day. We would provide academic help when needed, but more than that, we would bring in people from our community working in a variety of fields and give them a chance to invest time and energy into helping students see that they have the ability to bust through generational challenges facing them in order to pursue their dreams. By focusing on social, emotional and physical development in addition to giving academic support, we would work to level the playing field for any students who choose to attend.
MFF: When you retire (someday), what do you want your former students and colleagues to say about you?
Kimberly: I hope they say that I loved well, cared deeply and fought passionately for the best for students and for learning. I hope my students say that that I was willing to take risks and shift responsibility for learning to them and that I was able to fade into the background and let them drive the experiences that led to Latin-learning. I hope my colleagues will say that I stood up for them and for our profession in a time when educators were often vilified and under-empowered. Mostly, I hope they say that I left their lives better than I found them in some way, and that they have hope in education and our future.
MFF: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Kimberly: I think I would be writing. I deeply love to write and have always dreamed of writing a book. Perhaps the time for that will come one day, but for now, I know I am right in the center of my place in this world. Still, I try to use my passion for writing as often as I can to share the beautiful reasons why education is so important today through blogging and other writing ventures.
MFF: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Kimberly: When my students have learned to believe in themselves and to have hope in their futures. And when my students and my colleagues believe they can, in fact, change their worlds.
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