Spilling the Tea with Erin Ball, 2020 Kentucky Teacher of the Year

Today we’re speaking with Erin Ball, the 2020 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. She’s here with us to spill the tea on equity, literacy, and life as Kentucky’s most honored teacher. Enjoy!

Garris: Hey Erin! First, congratulations on being named the 2020 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. You’ve been recognized for the focus you place on multicultural diversity in your classroom, specifically on giving students access to texts and characters to which they can relate. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of students being able to “see themselves” in what they’re reading?

Erin: Thank you so much! Definitely. Everyone benefits from diverse literature. Reading books from many voices and perspectives not only fosters empathy and awareness but it also helps to develop our students into inclusive citizens who value diversity and who care about the world and other people. Everyone wants to be able to see themselves in the stories that they read.

Unfortunately, though, many minorities and other marginalized groups are underrepresented or poorly represented in books published for young readers today. I believe all children deserve to see themselves and their families in the stories that they read. It’s important that we communicate to all our students that their stories matter. I think one important way we can do that is by giving our students access to texts and characters to which they can relate.

Garris: I certainly agree, and I want to say thanks for stepping up to model that for Kentucky’s teachers. Speaking along those lines, one of the Kentucky Department of Education’s biggest initiatives this past year has been “closing the gap, raising the bar.” What does that mean to you? What does “raising the bar” mean?

Erin: A major challenge in public education today is closing socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps. In some school districts across the state, these gaps have widened. To me, this means there is an urgent need to make strides towards closing these gaps through intentional focus from everyone on these students and on our strategies. It will take collaboration from all stakeholders to make sure we are providing comprehensive support, culturally competent staff, and adequate resources to effectively meet the needs of all of Kentucky’s students.

Sarah Reed, the 2015 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, recently recommended to me the book Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools by Amada E. Lewis and John B. Diamond. The book explores how the racial achievement gap continues and challenges some of the most common explanations for the racial achievement gap. I would highly recommend it for those wanting a more in-depth insight into the issue. Another fantastic recommendation from Nyree Clayton Taylor, the 2019 Elementary School Teacher of the Year, was Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks who Teach in The Hood… and the rest of Y’all Too. This book provides excellent advice for how we can more effectively serve minority students.

Garris: Next, a couple questions about your award. As you’ve probably heard, Kentucky’s 2019 Teacher of the Year Jessica Dueñas made headlines when she announced that she would protest the National Teacher of the Year recognition ceremony at the White House. Do you plan to go to Washington next year to meet with members of the Trump administration?

Erin: Yes, I had the pleasure of meeting Jessica and having lunch a couple weeks ago. I have immense admiration and respect for her and her devotion to her students. She is doing wonderful work and it’s really an honor to be following in her footsteps. I do plan to go to Washington next year and hope to use the opportunity to meet with official from the President’s administration to discuss equity in public education.

Garris: Finally, as the 2020 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, you’ve been presented with an opportunity to take a sabbatical and work with KDE. Can you talk a little bit about what you hope to achieve during your time away from school?

Erin: Yes, the sabbatical is a tremendous privilege and opportunity. Right now, I’m trying to brainstorm and gather information and feedback on some of my passions so that I can narrow my focus and hit the ground running when I begin my sabbatical in January. There are several wonderful initiatives and programs in Kentucky right now aimed at increasing the number of minority teachers through recruitment and retention. I’m still working on what my best contribution towards this end will be, but a big part of my platform will be partnering with the efforts of others doing the important work of helping to make our teacher population better match our student population across the state.

In light of poor public perception of teachers, I would also like to promote some of the excellent things happening in Kentucky classrooms. I’m hoping to observe some of our state’s highly effective teachers in action and report on their strategies. Not only do I hope teachers will gain insight into effective strategies worth emulating from fellow teachers across the state, but it’s important too for parents, politicians, and community members to get a glimpse of the great quality of education Kentucky teachers provide.

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