A conversation with Kelly Perkins, Contra Costa County Teacher of the Year and California Semi-Finalist at Ygnacio Valley High School
Q: Can you share with our audience what grade and school you teach at?
KP: I teach high school special education- students with moderate-severe learning disabilities at Ygnacio Valley High School.
Q: Why did you want to become a teacher?
KP: I have always loved working with kids. I started at a young age volunteering at our church and it became a natural path after several volunteer opportunities in high school and then college. I enjoy watching a child’s face light up when they learn something new, it’s addicting, so that’s why I’ve continued for over 27 years!
Q: Share with us a typical day for you at school.
KP: I begin the day teaching a modified/sensory yoga class with my students with moderate-severe learning disabilities as well as several kids from the intensive autism program. The students learn to stretch and move and follow directions; it kicks off the day in a positive way every day. The next period we do math rotations. All my students work at different levels, so this gives me the opportunity to work on individual goals (for example, one student is learning to recognize her numbers and other students are learning beginning algebra!). In the rotations we play a math game, work on individual goals in small groups, and then students play math games on the computer. The next period the students do language arts in the same rotation fashion- similarly working on reading and writing strategies at their individual levels, working on a language arts game or a thematic unit activity, and then a story online for the final rotation. The students mainstream for 2 periods per day with their general education peers in classes such as beginning dance, PE, art or ceramics. While the students mainstream, I work in students IEP goals, assess students for their annual IEPs, work with students in their mainstream classes and hold parent meetings. I also work with beginning teachers this period on campus and other campuses in our district.
Q: Describe your philosophy of teaching?
KP: My philosophy of teaching hasn’t changed in all the years I’ve been teaching. I believe all students are capable of achieving and learning provided with the right can-do attitude, the right supports (technologies when appropriate) and a never-give-up attitude. If a student of mine ever says, “I can’t do this!” I teach them quickly to change their mantra to: “I can’t do this… YET!”
Q: How is education changing?
KP: I believe education is changing in several ways. A positive change I’ve seen, and embrace is inclusion for all- no matter one’s race, socioeconomic status, how one identifies with them self, varying ability levels- the education system is learning to embrace every type of difference. I also see technology changing education- some of which is very positive- such as the world of information and discovery is a click away, and adaptive devices to help students with disabilities function and participate in higher levels than ever imagined. I also see students being challenged more than ever to think for themselves, figure out solutions that might not have existed in the past and go beyond anything they thought capable of decades ago. Since I’ve been in education for over 27 years- I’ve seen many changes and continue to be awed at how every decade, things change a little bit more, and I’m pleased to say in my opinion, for the better.
Q: How do you support children with different learning styles and needs?
KP: This is my PASSION! I embrace every student’s unique differences and talents- what makes them special is often what makes them simply amazing. I always start with what I student knows, what they would like to know and build from there. My particular students work on life skills and functional academics. My ultimate goal is for students, all students, to be able to not only function in society, but be active and contributing members.
Q: In what ways do you encourage creativity in your classroom?
KP: Well, my co-workers would probably tell you I’m pretty creative and fun, and I want my students to come to school excited to learn and discover what great things we are going to do that day. We fill our classroom with music, dancing, art, exploration- we do things that you might not typically see in a special day classroom (like music videos, Christmas plays, Mother’s Day Tea parties, Haunted Houses at Halloween, performing in the school rallies…). I believe by embracing my desire to be creative, my students jump on board and explore their creativity as well. I fill the room with student work, and at Open House we wow the families with all our creative and amazing work on display. I also love doing project-based learning with my class, where the students need to work together in small groups to come up with a solution to something asked of them (such as, create a restaurant menu or travel brochure, or write and perform a commercial- things like that. One year we put together a class cookbook- the students illustrated the pages, it was really cool. There were family recipes in the cookbook, as well as many recipes the students searched and found on the internet. This year we want to put together a cookie cook book for a project-based learning project.
Q: How do you use technology to enrich your lessons?
KP: My students use technology for writing, for math practice, for language arts enrichment and for searching the internet for projects. I also have several students who use speech generating devices as they have limited speech. These students also use talking devices for oral presentations or class plays/ commercials, things like that. We use technology every period, every day the students are with me.
Q: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges that teachers face today?
KP: It’s my opinion that social media and use of cell phones during class time is the biggest problem teachers face today. Social media has created a level of insecurity in youth I never imagined possible. These insecurities can lead to self-doubt, depression, violence and more. Just being a teenager and figuring out where you fit in the world is hard enough, then added to that the constant need to feel accepted via the social media outlet, it seems like an incredibly difficult thing to manage in a positive way. I was a teenager in the 80’s, no technology, no social media- boys had to pick up the phone and ask to speak to me via the home phone (and my dad! :o) I worry teenagers these days aren’t learning the proper social skills they need to function in college and beyond, nor are they developing their self- esteem in the best possible way.
Q: What’s one lesson you’ve learned in your career that you can share with our audience?
KP: Like I expect of my students, I learned to never give up. We all have hard days, and teachers will have days with difficult students or adults with whom they encounter that can really bring them down. It’s important to know that things do get better, students do come around, behaviors can be changed for the better, that every student and class is unique and ever changing and we have to persevere through the changes. If a teacher feels they aren’t in the right place/class/grade level… then they should make a change- but don’t give up! I thought I was going to be a 3rd grade teacher; I thought that is all I wanted to teach. I was sort of thrown into special education by accident, and 27 years later, I cannot imagine doing anything else. I started in elementary special education. Six years later a job share came available in a high school setting, which I wanted to try since I just had my first child. I was so scared to teach high school level!! Guess what? I LOVED it, and don’t ever want to teach anything else. The point is, don’t give up on teaching or education. Keep trying and make a change if you haven’t found where you fit best in the world of education :o).
Q: Which woman inspires you and why?
KP: I LOVE and am so inspired by Oprah Winfrey. This is a woman who overcame amazing obstacles in her life (she was a trouble maker in high school!!) This is a woman who never gave up; she persevered in a world dominated by men and racism. Nothing could hold her back and she is today, and will go down in history, as one of the most influential women of all time.
Q: What are some of the challenges you feel women face today?
KP: I will swing back around to the social media issue I mentioned earlier. I feel women, especially young women, face issues with self-esteem, self-acceptance, self-love, because of the constant association of all these things via the amount of “likes” they receive on social media. I can honestly tell you, there probably isn’t a single day that goes by that I don’t see a young lady on my campus upset, crying, angry about something that was posted on social media. It breaks my heart and I truly fear for our future generations’ sense of self because of it.
Q: Do you have any advice for young women that may want to pursue a career as an educator?
KP: GO FOR IT!! It’s the best career choice for those who like the challenge, entertainment, surprise, delight, creativity, fun, and rewards that education our youth brings. And, come visit my class, we are always happy to have visitors :o)
Five Things About Kelly Perkins
1. What book are you currently reading?
Pride and Prejudice (My son is reading in English, so I thought I would read it at the same time since, believe it or not, I have never read this classic!)
2. What were you like as a student?
I actually got in trouble a lot at school because I was very wiggly. I did well as a student, because I liked getting good grades, I just couldn’t sit still or stop talking (big surprise- I’m still like this as an adult)
3. Who’s been the biggest influence in your life?
My grandmother was one of the biggest influences in my life. She was one of the most intelligent people I ever encountered but also amazingly hip, open minded, fun and fabulous. She was a great listener and had words of wisdom that always made sense and helped me find my way in the world. My children were lucky enough to know her for many of their early years. My grandmother would have been at the awards night when I received the honor of Contra Costa County Teacher of the Year if she was still alive, and she would have said, “Congratulations, but of course they picked you! You’re the best!”
4. What app can’t you live without?
WAZE - I have NO sense of direction, it was made for people like me who were always getting lost :o)
5. If you could talk to one famous person past or present, who would it be and why?
I gotta go with Oprah, like I said earlier, she is AMAZING. I would love to sit down and hear more about her childhood and teenage years and how she just plain kicked adversity in the face.