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April 30, 2019

Part 1 of 2: Teacher of the Year! What it’s like to win!

Interview with Teacher of the Year Award Winner: Katy Smith

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life?

Since I’ve been around a while, there are a few “hardest things” from which I could choose, but definitely at the top is having a child. 

I was a new sleep-deprived, lonely, (and even a little scared) mom, when I walked to the mailbox and found a brochure that said “Wanted: BABIES.”  

While reading through the information, I realized they weren’t asking just for babies, they wanted parents, too! I was intrigued—and it was in that moment that I discovered a program called ECFE—Early Childhood Family Education. The program said it was a place where mess-making, play, and discovery were encouraged, a place to connect with other parents in the community, and a place to learn about parenting and to receive support.

Besides the ECFE program itself, I learned about the role of parent educators in the ECFE program. I grew to understand that the role of parent educators was to provide research on parenting, best practices and support to the parents of 0-5 year olds. One amazing parent educator I met along the way was Katy Smith. Katy won the Teacher of the Year award in 2011 and has created a following through her advocacy for children and families.

Katy Smith – 2011 Teacher of the Year, Minnesota

What did it feel like to win Teacher of the Year?!

I was happy when I was named a semi-finalist and thrilled when I was named a finalist. Being a finalist meant that I would interview with the selection panel. I was excited to represent ECFE as a parent educator. It has been a joy and an honor to represent not only teachers, but ECFE teachers as an advocate and ambassador of the work we do with parents, children, and families in communities all over the state. I can hardly describe my surprise when they called my name at the banquet!

What do you teach, where do you teach, and how long have you taught? 

I am a parent educator and have taught parent education at ECFE for 31 years. 29 years in Winona [Minnesota], one year in Robbinsdale, and this school year in South Washington County. I teach one class these days and spend lots of time giving speeches, training, and advocating for early childhood and parent education.  

Tell me a bit about your choice to become a teacher. In other words, did you feel called to the profession — if so, how, and if not, how did you become a teacher?  

I was on maternity leave from my job as a chemical dependency family counselor when I signed up for “Baby and Me” in Winona. It may not have dawned on me in that very first class, but before the term was over, I had started to ask the staff at ECFE what the process was to become a parent educator. By the time my third, and youngest daughter was ready for preschool, I was a licensed parent educator. I just kept hanging out until they hired me! I have always been called to work with families.  

For you, what is the best part about teaching and what is challenging? 

The best part of teaching comes from knowing that I was perfectly placed in a job that fits me to a tee. The challenge comes from the changing landscape of teaching in early childhood. I have great concerns about meeting the needs of a whole child and a whole family in the current climate of high stakes testing.  

How has being the Teacher of the Year changed you, your teaching, your life? 

The opportunities that have come with the honor have helped me grow as a teacher and as a person. The title opens doors. I have become much more comfortable in my role as an advocate. At this point in my career, I feel a responsibility to grow leaders in the early childhood profession. We do important work and we need to tell the story of our work to grow our support for the work we do.  

What would you tell your younger self about teaching and/or life? 

There is not a single thing my younger self would have listened to, not even from her future self. I have always been a person who has found her own way. Stubborn runs deep with me.  

What can we (humans) do to support teachers and students? 

Trust them. Oftentimes, in order to reach students, we need to veer off [our] lesson plan for a day, a week, or even a whole year. I have loved families beyond the responsibility of my job description and have never regretted it. I have been honored to be the first person a parent has trusted in schools. The work I have done, in small steps, to heal trauma has been the most rewarding work in my career. There is a saying that the work you do as a young parent to heal your own pain and trauma is the best gift that you give to your future grandchildren. This, I know, is true.  

Assume the best of teachers, partner with them, support them, care about the work that they do to grow good people.  

We have much to learn in our state, in our nation, in our world about inclusion, equity, kindness, and love. Education is the key to a more just world.  

All children are our children.

Katy, thank you for your work with students and families, as well as for your never-ending advocacy! We applaud and appreciate you! 

To learn how to apply, nominate, or become a Teacher of the Year candidate, please click here.


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