In 2006, Maryland kindergarten teacher Kimberly Oliver won the prestigious National Teacher of the Year award after just a few years on the job. Oliver's work to prepare her students for a lifetime of learning had brought accolades from her fellow teachers as well as from parents and district administrators alike, and her school's vastly improved scores on state proficiency tests also were cited as a factor for her win. "I take it very seriously that parents have entrusted me with their most precious commodity, their children," she told Grace Rubenstein in an interview that appeared on the Edutopia Web site. "They have sent me the best that they have, and they want the best for them. My goal is really to bring out the best in each of my students each and every day, help them become a little smarter each and every day."
Born on October 20, 1976, Oliver grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, with an older brother in a household headed by their father, the pastor of a Baptist church, and mother who worked at a local community center. Her first day-care teacher, Oliver has said in several interviews, was a profound influence on her and the reason she decided to become a teacher. Though Oliver was occasionally discouraged from pursuing that choice of career, she remained settled upon it from an early age. "I remember having guidance counselors who told me ‘You can be anything you want’ and steering me toward other paths that might be more lucrative," she told Georgina Stark of the Daily Press of Newport News, Virginia, "but ultimately I've always wanted to be a teacher."
After graduating from William Penn High School, Oliver earned her undergraduate degree in English arts from Hampton University, a historically black school, in 1998. She went on to Wilmington College for a master's degree in elementary education, and had decided she wanted to work with younger children because, as she said in an interview with the Washington Post's Lori Aratani, "they love to share. They are so eager to learn—and then share with you what they've learned." Her first teaching job was at an Elementary Workshop Montessori School in Wilmington, but after earning her master's degree in 2000 she was hired by the Montgomery County Public School system in Maryland.
Oliver was assigned to Broad Acres, an underperforming school with students from the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder in the Washington, D.C., suburb. Fewer than 12 percent of its third graders were testing at the stipulated proficiency level on state tests when she came to work there. A year later President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, a sweeping package of federal legislation designed to improve the performance of primary and secondary public education in the United States. After Oliver's first year of full-time teaching, the staff at Broad Acres began adhering to a restructuring plan designed to improve student performance on the state-mandated tests that measured proficiency in reading and math.
Oliver was given a full-day kindergarten class that was smaller by several students than that of her first year. She and other teachers also began to meet regularly, and it was this new part of her job that helped her immeasurably. Prior to the restructuring, "there was no set time for us to meet in the day, so I was doing a lot of things by myself," she told Rubenstein. "I was working late every night, staying at school till about six o'clock, planning each and every lesson, assessment, and activity, and it was very draining for me. The next year, we had time paid to work after school so that we could plan together, and it made a huge difference. It really helped me focus my lessons more because I wasn't reinventing the wheel."
One of the most challenging aspects of Oliver's job was the fact that nearly all of her students came from homes in which English was not the primary language; the kindergartners were the sons and daughters of immigrants from Africa, Vietnam, and Latin America. Oliver sought to build ties with the parents, many of whom had come out of less-than-ideal educational systems themselves, and engage them in an appropriate level of involvement with their children's learning. Her effort to secure grants to purchase bilingual books and books on tape materials for use at home was a success, as was the "Books and Supper Night" she initiated, a four-times-a-year event at Broad Acres that invited the students and parents for a communal evening meal and access to the school library.
Oliver was nominated by her peers for the state Teacher of the Year honor, and won the Maryland title in October of 2005. Six months later, she won the National Teacher of the Year award, administered by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) since the early 1950s as the annual recognition for excellence in teaching. The impressive spike in test scores for her school was cited as one of the major factors in the selection of Oliver for the award: in the five years since she had been at Broad Acres, nearly 75 percent of third-graders were testing at their proficiency level in reading.
Unfortunately for Oliver, her state and national Teacher of the Year honors meant that she was away from her classroom for nearly two years in her temporary role as a national and international spokesperson for education. She began her national duties in that role in June of 2006, just two months after the award ceremony at the White House. On that day, President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush—a former elementary school librarian—commended Oliver for her dedication to her job and to the ideals embodied by universal access to education in America. A few months later, Oliver told Stark that she remembered feeling calm during the ceremony, but in retrospect it now seemed "surreal. When I look back at the pictures of it I'm like, ‘I was standing that close to the president?’"
At a Glance …
Born on October 20, 1976, in Wilmington, DE; daughter of Baptist pastor and a community-center worker. Education: Hampton University, BA, 1998; Wilmington College, MEd, 2000.
Elementary Workshop Montessori School, Wilmington, DE, assistant teacher, 1999(?)-2000; Montgomery County Public Schools, Rockville, MD, kindergarten teacher, 2000-.
Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), National Teacher of the Year, 2006.
Office—c/o Montgomery County Public Schools, 850 Hungerford Dr., Rockville MD 20850.
Daily Press (Newport News, VA) October 3, 2006.
Seattle Times, April 26, 2006, p. A7.
Washington Post, April 25, 2006, p. B1.
"A Conversation with Kimberly Oliver," Edutopia, www.edutopia.org/php/article.php?id=Art_1596 (February 21, 2007).
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