Emily Kelly, 8th grade science teacher at New Bridge Middle School, originally had other plans for her future, but after a challenge right out of the gate in her undergraduate career, shifted gears to education. Since then, she has found success instructing for nearly 10 years. Kelly was named the 2017 Teacher of the Year at New Bridge Middle School after a rigorous selection process that included an extensive information packet on her teaching philosophies as well as key interviews and classroom observations by a panel of judges from Onslow County School District.

Grade level/class: 8th grade science

Number of years in education: 7 years in public schools

Number of years at current school: 6 years

Graduating colleges/universities: University of North Carolina Wilmington (Bachelor of Arts, Middle Grades Education), Miami University (Masters in the Art of Teaching Biology)

Q. What encouraged you to pursue your job as an educator?

A. Chemistry 101. That is where it all began. I was a freshman at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and was eager to pursue a career in nursing. However, my first semester rocked my world. Chemistry 101 seemed impossible; I invested hours into studying and tutoring but chemistry was still a foreign language to me. Upon meeting with my advisor, I chose to change my major from nursing to education. This was an easy choice; I knew that I could teach for five years in a Title I school and my undergraduate degree would be paid for. I thought this was a reasonable idea and it gave me time to figure out what I really wanted to be when I grew up. God laughed at this plan. This year marks my eighth year of teaching and I cannot imagine myself doing anything else.

I have no doubt that education was my calling and that many other people recognized that before I did.

While a sophomore in high school, I was identified as a Prezell R. Robinson Scholar, which is a scholarship program for potential teaching candidates. I was also selected in high school to serve as part of the Students and Teachers Achieving Results committee. This group met monthly to review strategic planning and proposals for Duplin County Schools while allowing students and teachers to offer ideas for improving our school district. These opportunities gave me an extra push toward a degree in education and I still value all that I learned in these first steps toward my career.

Q. What encouraged you to pursue education within your specific age level/curriculum?

A. Middle school students are fascinating, sometimes mysterious creatures. I love that they still have the curiosity of children, but so desperately want to be adults. Teaching middle school sciences allows me to treat them as adults, while experiencing the simple joys and magic of childhood.

Q. What is your main classroom philosophy?

A. I have come to realize that I am not the super hero teacher who intimidates us all with their perfectly arranged classrooms and over-the-top lessons featured in their daily blog. I am a teacher that sometimes feels really tired and overwhelmed by paperwork. There are days that I disregard my lesson plan and fly by the seat of my pants. My students are served plenty of engaging lessons and problem-based learning, but sometimes we read from textbooks and complete worksheets. My classroom is filled with not-so-inside voices and messy projects but at the end of every day, I can recall laughter and smiles in my classroom and that is my greatest contribution in education – to make students forget that they are learning. I consider my classroom as an environment where students are pushed to the edge of their comfort zones, they are taught work ethic and application of knowledge to prepare them for life beyond middle/high school.

Q. What is a lesson you have learned from your students?

A. Every day, I learn from my students and often I learn more about myself than about them. The biggest lesson that students have taught me is to listen. Sometimes we need to know where people are coming from to understand their actions or behaviors. Sometimes we just need an ear to hear our story.

Q. What is your favorite part of being an educator?

A. Knowing that I made a difference, no matter how small.

Q. What advice would you give to upcoming/new educators?

A. Be passionate about what you do.

Q. What are three words that would describe your life outside of the classroom?

A. Adventure. Travel. Dogs.

Q. What is a favorite memory from your teaching career?

A. The last day of school 2015. Saying goodbye on the last day of school is always bittersweet. On this particular day, I felt completely rewarded from a year full of ups and downs. One student had just received news of her outstanding End Of Grade scores – she had shown significant growth in all subject areas and couldn’t wait to tell her mom! We called her from the classroom to share the news, with tears flowing down our cheeks. Another student had written me a hysterical goodbye letter, complete with our inside jokes. We laughed until our sides hurt! At the very end of that same day, my students (who knew me well enough to know that I prefer high-fives, not hugs) attacked me with one giant bear hug after they had participated in field day and a block party. Their clothes were drenched in sweat…but it was the sweetest hug I ever received.

Q. What advice would you give to a parent of an 8th grader?

A. I like to compare eighth grade (and middle school) to learning how to ride a bike, only your student is learning time management skills, responsibility and work ethic. Now is the time to take off the training wheels, let them skin their knees. Maybe your child does not have all A’s, but that is okay. Let them be kids. Let them fall. Let them pick themselves back up. Be there to brush off the dust and to wash the wounds.

Q. What changes would you like to see implemented in the school system within the next five years?

A. Onslow County Schools are progressive in the programs/academies that are offered to our high school students. I look forward to seeing our county integrate more Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, Mathematics education across all grade levels. STEM and STEAM education fosters critical thinking and problem-solving skills that our students need. These are skills that all students benefit from and that make our students more successful after high school. I already see this happening in our schools, and I know that possibilities for the future of our students are endless.

Q. What are the biggest challenges you face as an educator in a military town?

A. I grew up in a small town where no one ever left, so it was hard for me to adapt to a community where people come and go so often. I made a big deal of my first student who moved away by telling them goodbye and offering for the class to say goodbye as well. The next day, I mentioned how strange it was to see that empty desk and a student said, “Ms. Kelly, people move all the time.” The child looked at me like I was crazy.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share about being an educator?

A. Every day, we are faced with new challenges. We know that our students and their parents appreciate us, but it truly makes our day to receive a simple thank you – an email, a card, a letter or just a spoken word. You may not see it or feel it every day, but we are working our hardest to serve your child the best that we can. Take a second to say thank you to your child’s teacher.

Editor’s note: The Teacher Feature is a column that highlights accomplished educators on and off base and seeks to recognize the important role they play in children’s lives and education.