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Karen Thomas – Westside Elementary

I’m still early-on in my career as a school psychologist but it’s clear to me that Ms. Thomas is one of those teachers that truly changes the lives of her students. She puts in the time necessary to be prepared, stay in close contact with parents, and really be there for her students. I’m quickly discovering how much work goes on behind-the-scenes and outside of contract hours to be a remarkable teacher. Ms. Thomas willingly puts in this extra effort and deserves to be recognized for all that she does to teach and enrich the lives of her students.

Ms. Karen Thomas is a third grade teacher at Westside Elementary and has already accomplished many things in her 14 years as an educator. She is constantly seeking to improve herself and has pursued opportunities to further her education by receiving a master’s degree and additional endorsements. She is the go-to person for all things technology at Westside, frequently promoting ways for teachers to effectively incorporate technology in the classroom such as using Google classrooms. Ms. Thomas is very approachable and freely gives of her time to coworkers and parents, setting up after-school trainings for co-workers to help with technology needs and meeting with parents about student concerns. She regularly works well outside of normal contract hours, putting in extra time to plan interactive lessons, provide feedback to students, collaborate with coworkers, and update parents on student progress.

As a school psychologist, I have the opportunity of observing many classrooms. I was immediately struck by Ms. Thomas’s teaching during my first observation of her classroom. Having recently completed a graduate program in education, I’ve taken many classes on learning theory and behavior management. What impressed me about my observation of Ms. Thomas’s classroom is that she seamlessly utilized so many of the strategies I had learned about. She clearly understands what makes teachers effective and she takes the time to implement those strategies, even if it means more work for her. She has routines that her students are well-versed in, her expectations are clear, and her positive feedback to students is free-flowing. Ms. Thomas often walks around the room, managing frequent individual contact with students while maintaining a whole-class structure. She tells stories to help students make connections and access previous knowledge as well as finds ways to make lessons interactive and meaningful for students.

Ms. Thomas brings things that she’s passionate about into her teaching. For example, Ms. Thomas really loves art so during read aloud, her students have the choice of drawing a picture about what she’s reading about. At the end of each week, students then have the opportunity to share what they’ve drawn with the class and “auction” off their drawings (students raise their hands to indicate an interest in the drawing and the artist chooses one of these students to give the drawing to). It’s engaging for the students and also helps to establish peer connections. Walking into Ms. Thomas’s classroom, one will find student artwork and essays hung proudly on the back wall and throughout the hallway.

But beyond all of Ms. Thomas’s many qualifications, what stands out the most is her individualized approach with students. Even though Ms. Thomas has 35 students in her classroom, it’s not uncommon for her to take the time to talk one-on-one with students to address behavioral and emotional concerns. She’s perceptive of student needs and will follow up with students who seem to be having a bad day or have consistent problems behaviorally. She creates and effectively implements individualized behavior plans for students who need additional support and will check in with them frequently using behavior trackers and motivating rewards. I have heard multiple parents talk about how grateful they are for Ms. Thomas because she goes above and beyond for their children. She maintains frequent contact with parents and has even set up another phone number through Google so she can send daily text updates. I was talking with a substitute teacher of Ms. Thomas’s who’s aid that she thought Ms. Thomas got all the tough students because everyone knows she can handle them. I’ve collaborated with her about some of these students and enjoy doing so because I know she will humbly welcome any suggestions and implement them well.

Educators often put in countless hours outside of the school day in order to ensure that the 6 hours spent with students each day is efficient, productive, and worthwhile. As a school psychologist, I work to advocate for students on a daily basis, but what I’m quickly learning is that teachers are the ones who, day-in and day-out, really make the difference in the lives of their students. Ms. Thomas is one of those teachers who is truly shaping the lives of her students academically, behaviorally, emotionally, and socially. All of this and more is evidence that Ms. Thomas should receive extra recognition for all that she does.

–Kim Lowe