Thursday, May 05, 2011

Katy Smith, teacher of the year

We have lots of family news to report, but I have a small window of opportunity to post (nap time is over soon), so I'm going to post about how this year's Minnesota Teacher of the Year is our very own Katy Smith, family educator in our weekly ECFE classes for the past nine years and a good friend, too. I wrote a letter of recommendation for Katy (below) and edited her portfolio.

This blog is called GraceWatch, and it occurs to me that I have seen Katy act as a "minister of grace" for more than one family over the years. Perhaps the most poignant time was in the wake of the death of Brianna, the daughter of my former boss and her very good friends. She was right there with the family in the receiving line at the wake. More frequently, I have seen her help a mom who is caught in the pits of despair and hopelessness find her way to a better place. I also know how much unseen, unsung work she does behind the scenes. She was one of the people who showed up, unsolicited, to help Starling with the fundraiser for Anthony last fall. She also came over to hold my sister's baby while I took a shower one night in the wake of my sister's heart attack.

I talked to Katy today and apparently it's been a whirlwind ever since she won -- she's been getting calls and media requests nonstop. What's really funny is that in at least two instances, she wound up doing an informal, on-the-=spot parent ed session with the reporters! ("My two-year-old keeps saying 'no' all the time -- why is that?" asked a cameraman.) Apparently the rep from Education Minnesota asked, "Is this going to happen all the time now?" Answer: Probably!

Here is the very funny announcement of her winning the Teacher of the Year award. The people screaming over the announcement are all friends/acquaintances of ours through ECFE:

As Teacher of the Year, Katy gets quite a few nifty prizes: cash, an iPad, trips to various places (Harvard! Space Camp! The White House!) -- but best of all, she's going to be a great advocate for the value of early childhood education, and family education.

Here's my letter of recommendation:

To the Minnesota Teacher of the Year selection committee:

My first child entered the world after forty-seven grueling hours of drug-free labor that ended in my wife undergoing a Cesarean section—this despite our detailed birth plan. Besides being disappointed in the outcome, my wife and I had felt very alone during that long labor.

In order to avoid a repeat of that experience with our second child, we hired a doula: someone to offer advice, information, support and encouragement during that long labor. What a difference she made! We jokingly inquired about her availability to help us through the next twenty years of child rearing. Not surprisingly, our original doula graciously declined our invitation. But as we’ve raised four children over the past nine years or so, we have indeed found that kind of doula in Katy Smith.

In the seven years that I have been attending Katy Smith’s parent education classes (my wife attended for two years before me), I have seen her help hundreds of parents to “birth” their children into the wider world—or at least into the world of preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school.

How does she do that? Like a good doula, she knows how to make moms (and dads!) comfortable. Every parent and child who walks through her classroom door is welcomed with warmth and enthusiasm. “It’s great to see you!” she says, as if you have just made her day complete. Stressed-out, sleep-deprived parents are welcomed into the parent education room with a pot of hot coffee and a humorous comment or two. In most of her classes, there is quite a bit of laughter. But the way she uses humor in the classroom is skillful, not gratuitous or showy; she uses it to put new members of the class at ease, to talk about a difficult subject, to lift the spirits of an especially discouraged parent.

Katy provides expert instruction and guidance; this is a woman who is a veteran of many “births.” Sometimes she brings in newspaper clippings about current parenting issues (“DVD players with your grocery carts, anyone?”), and she always has a good lesson plan. But what truly marks her as a master educator is how little time she actually spends speaking during class. More frequently, she lets parents take the lead. Katy starts off class by asking a few simple questions, including “How was your week?” and “Did anyone come to class needing time?” (class time to discuss a particular challenge).

Some educators would feel insecure giving so much real estate over to the class: Who knows where the discussion might go? What if there’s not enough time for the lesson plan? But a good doula, although she may have a plan of her own, knows how to follow the parents’ lead. Katy seems be quite comfortable being an expert guide. “All right,” she’ll say after a mom has poured her heart out about some parenting dilemma. “What do people know about this? Let’s brainstorm!” And then the magic starts, as moms and dads start sharing their own wisdom, and building on one another’s insights. At the end of twenty minutes, the previously distressed parent has a wide array of strategies to try out, and the rest of the parents may have learned a thing or two along the way—perhaps even realizing their own competence as parents. To the parents, Katy may seem “invisible” during such a discussion—but watch carefully, and you’ll notice her expert guidance: a question here, a comment there, arched eyebrows or a little joke. And if necessary, she’s also capable of jumping in with her own wisdom and advice. Even when that advice is difficult to hear, she always manages to deliver it with humor and encouragement.

Visit Katy’s classroom, and you’ll consistently see parents leave with more confidence, more hope, and more energy than when they walked in the door. It’s a visible phenomenon: heads are held higher, voices are stronger and more optimistic. Parents leave with a demeanor that says, “Bring it on! I can handle it!”

A good doula is there when you need her. Similarly, Katy doesn’t confine her work to her classroom. She frequently extends the invitation to call her at home—“We’ll get a cup of coffee or walk around the lake!” It’s an offer that many parents have taken her up on. Sometimes, you don’t need to call; she just shows up. A year ago, my sister was in a coma after a heart attack, and my family took in her newborn baby—even though we had our own newborn. Katy came over to watch them so I could take a shower. How great is that? This kind of behind-the-scenes, hands-on involvement is not uncommon for Katy.

A good doula is also a good advocate for parents. Katy is that, too, as I believe the rest of her portfolio will indicate. But she does more than passionately advocate for parents, children, and education on her own; she also encourages parents to be advocates as well, in ways both large (contacting political leaders) and small (baking for your neighbors, offering an encouraging word to a beleaguered parent in the store).

I could say so much more, but in the interest of time, let me just close by making a case for why Katy Smith would be a good Teacher of the Year. I don’t need to recite all of the research pointing to the importance of early childhood education, or parental involvement in the education process. We all know that the sort of work Katy is doing pays off for years and years: engaged, skilled parents are a gift to their children—and to their children’s teachers. More importantly, it seems as though that insight has finally caught the imagination of our political leaders in Minnesota.

Strike while the iron is hot, I say; and I know of no better voice for early childhood education than Katy Smith. She is a passionate, folksy, funny public speaker, much in demand locally and around the state. She is politically savvy, and knows how to take a stand and push for it. But you won’t find her wagging her finger in the faces of our governor and legislative leaders. Instead, she will shake their hands, introduce herself politely, and get them laughing about something in under five minutes. In another twenty, she’ll have charmed their socks off. And then she’ll move in for the kill (metaphorically speaking, of course): “Speaking of the fishing opener, Governor, have you ever heard a little song called ‘Slippery Fish’? It’s a real favorite in early childhood classrooms . . . I could sing it for you! Or we could just talk about early childhood funding for the upcoming biennium. . . .”

Katy Smith has helped thousands of parents in the Winona area to find confidence, hope, and joy within the long, difficult labor of parenting. I would be delighted to see what she might help bring to birth in our state as Teacher of the Year.