Educator Bonnie Kirkley inspires us with her passion for coaching adults, teaching Talented and Gifted students, and how to shake a teaching slump
Hi Bonnie, and welcome to the Series, Why I Still Love Teaching! Tell us a little about yourself. Where do you teach, what do you teach, and how long have you been in the industry?
I’m a teacher in Georgia and I’ve been teaching for (eek!) 17 years! I began my career teaching 1st grade for 6 years. After that, I taught 5th grade for 7 years. Currently I am the Gifted Resource Teacher (K-5), and I also serve as STEAM curriculum director at my school.
Tell us about your journey to becoming an educator.
Of course, I enjoyed playing school when I was little. My mother was in education. I was pretty exposed to education. I think for some reason I didn’t believe I would ever be anything else. I enjoyed my years in college at Valdosta State University. I enjoyed my classmates in college very much! I had a wonderful student teaching experience for which I am thankful. I then got lucky enough to get a job at the elementary school at which I completed my student teaching. I have been teaching there for the past 17 years. It really has flown by, and I speak about my first years of teaching as if they were yesterday.
What do you absolutely love about teaching and our profession?
I believe you must be some kind of really awesome person to be allowed to be responsible for the instruction of students. I enjoy creating experiences. When I got my first job, I couldn’t wait to create experiences for students to learn from. To be honest, I also couldn’t believe that it was an actual job to be in charge of all the supplies in a classroom, and that they could belong to me and the students I taught! I had a thing for school supplies, still do. I looked at teaching as a job of integrity. And the school supplies… Yay!
Yes, what is it with us teachers and school supplies!? You’re not alone, Bonnie! So, if you’ve long known that you wanted to be a teacher, who do you credit as being an important mentor for you?
My mother has always been a great mentor to me. She is a speech therapist. I have never seen more dedication in any person I know. Even today, she still puts my dedication to shame with her ability to show up everyday for her students and patients. She still finds time to show up for me always, as well.
A family of educators! How wonderful to find inspiration from your mom. Let’s shift gears and talk about students. Can you tell us about students who’ve inspired your practice?
Honestly, I have multiple students who have inspired me to be a better teacher. It’s the class clown that finally shows interest in something. It’s the teacher pet who has a hard day when getting challenged. It’s the unmotivated student that opens up, and you really see them. It’s the little ones that just see the world so cheerfully. It’s every student that gets away from their normal self and reflects growth. That’s what inspires me.
Have you ever had “crystal clear” moments where you just know that you’re in the right career – the right place at the right time?
Yes! I’ve had many successes with students that have told me I am in the “right place.” However, the biggest moment of triumph I had came just 4 years ago. This moment did say to me, “You are doing a good job. You are a great teacher.”
Out of the blue one summer, my new principal called me to ask if I would be interested in moving from 5th grade to teach our gifted students. I was the first and only person she thought of. I have never gotten “Teacher of the Year” or any kind of special recognition that is a traditional pat on the back. We all need that pat on the back that tells us we are doing the right thing. This was just the biggest moment for me that validated everything I did.
Wow – that is quite the compliment! To what do you attribute that success?
To be honest, I am a different kind of teacher. Some of my peers haven’t always understood how I teach. Many probably wondered why students enjoyed my classes. Not everyone is this way, but I believe learning should always be fun. It’s very hard to tell that learning is taking place sometimes in my classroom. Others wonder, “What is going on?!” My students are happy, and I am happy. Being asked to take this job was very special for me.
Speaking of happy students, what is it that you love and appreciate about your students?
I love my students simply because they love me, too. We have a relationship in which we look forward to seeing each other. We all have bad days. It seems as though the relationship with students is a perfect give and take relationship. I may have an off day, or they may have an off day. Whichever it is, it seems that one of us is always ready to give back what the other needs to be happy in the place we are in. We are aware of each other, and we notice when one or the other isn’t quite right. I care, and they care so it’s important to always be there.
To New Teachers
Bonnie, you’ve been in the education field for a while. Some might call you a veteran teacher, or at minimum, a teacher leader. So let’s talk about new teachers. What do you admire about those who are just joining our field?
To the new teachers, I am so jealous of your innocence, and your foreheads with no wrinkles! I enjoy seeing so much potential in new teachers and thinking back on myself as a new teacher. Wow. That’s a thought. I do see myself when I observe new teachers. I think about my mistakes, and then I think, “Were they really mistakes? I was learning just like they are.”
Watching new teachers, with all their energy, is one of my favorite things to do. I work with all the teachers at my school, and I love meeting with new teachers the most because I know how they look at me. It’s crazy to think that I am actually in a position now that new teachers look at me as “all knowing”. If they only knew how it really is! I know now that we never stop learning, and seasoned doesn’t always mean you know more. It just means you know you still have a lot to learn.
I appreciate your humility! Tell me – how do you stay recharged and inspired considering how difficult our work is?
Hmmmm….. You know I am going to be honest. We all have things that make us happy. However, sometimes recharging means…. Take the sick day. Do it. You need it, so take it! I do, and I don’t feel guilty at all. You shouldn’t ever feel guilty. I know educators will. I know sometimes it’s hard for me not to feel guilty. However, you can’t be the person students need if you aren’t well, so take the sick day!
And what about when you’re just not feeling it? What brings you up when you’re feeling discouraged, frustrated or skeptical about aspects of being a teacher?
I have a person. A person I know well. I feel comfortable talking with her about anything. We aren’t the same. We actually shed light on each other’s different points of view. I hope that all teachers have a teacher friend like this. A real teacher friend. Your confidentiality should be kept by them, and you should keep theirs. I know this isn’t possible everywhere, but I am so glad I found that person. I didn’t always have this person. I believe that maybe it takes a while to find someone like that. Don’t shut everyone out. You never know if your person is right in front of you.
A real teacher friend – you’re right, that is very important! What advice would you give your “teacher friend” if they were tired? Disheartened? Feeling “over it” when it comes to education?
Here is my advice for tired or beaten down teachers, and it’s not a pretty word. Change. I don’t mean change fromteaching. I mean change something. Can you change the grade level or subject you teach? Can you change the style in which you teach? Can you change some of your materials? Can you change the lesson you have perfected and do every year? It will get old eventually.
Some of the best changes I have made simply came from reading a book for teachers I chose. Yes, find out what’s hot. Get into a new book. Join the PLN for that book. There are lots of reasons teachers get beat down. Some we can control, and some we can not. If you are in a particularly bad situation, try to get out of it by moving grade levels, schools, or confronting the problem. Hopefully, this isn’t the case. Most of the time, we just need a change. We don’t like to change, and it can be scary. It gives us new focus, and sometimes clarity on what was bringing us down anyway.
Why I Still Love Teaching
That’s great advice, thank you. Bonnie, can you share with us – Why do you still love teaching?
I still love teaching because…. Teaching Never Sleeps. It evolves. It breathes. It gives us purpose. It’s everywhere. In each and everyday, and many times in our dreams, we figure out new ways to teach, grow, and learn.
My position now has me working with other teachers more than students. This has been my greatest struggle. Kids are easy compared to grown-ups! I have cried more in the past 2 years than ever! Every now and then I have a few successes with teachers. If I could give any advice to any other teachers, never stop learning and listening. We may do things well, but there is always room for improvement. This new job of teaching grown-ups has opened new doors for me to be able to share online. Once again, I still love teaching! Thank you for the opportunity to join your series, Why I Still Love Teaching!
Bonnie – you inspire us to keep growing and learning, take care of ourselves, and form meaningful relationships with our students and colleagues.
How can we stay connected with you or see your great work?