Three Teachers Selected for Statewide Honors Programs

Jan. 3, 2013 ~ A selection committee with the Olathe Public Schools has announced its nominees for the 2014 Kansas Teacher of the Year (elementary and secondary) and the 2014 Emporia State University Master Teacher awards.

The Kansas Teacher of the Year program, sponsored by the Kansas State Department of Education, identifies and recognizes excellent teachers at elementary and secondary levels. The Emporia State University Master Teacher Award honors experienced teachers who demonstrate exceptional qualities.

Lori Bettis, Bentwood Elementary School
Kansas Teacher of the Year (elementary) nominee

Lori BettisLori Bettis is a two-time district employee, having taught at Indian Creek Elementary in 1990 and 1991 before moving out of state and continuing to teach. She returned to Olathe in 2008 as a substitute teacher and became a full-time teacher of kindergarten last year.

Her interest in education was sparked by two parents who taught Sunday school and having spent a lot of time around children. For a brief time she considered being a play therapist, but changed her mind after taking a psychology class in college.

"I tried education and it was the perfect fit," she said. "I did my student teaching and decided that was the place I needed to be."

Looking back over her career as a teacher, Bettis believes her greatest success is the growth she sees in her students.

"I have kids who want to come to my room. I try to create an environment that's fun, and is a warm, safe place," she said. "I try to help the kids find whatever they can do to do the best they can. In kindergarten we have the advantage of being able to see huge amounts of growth."

This year she's a mentor for a new teacher, and that gives her a chance to share some advice from her own career in the classroom.

"There's a lot that goes on your first year of teaching and at times it can be overwhelming. You have to stop and think 'what am I really here for? I'm here for the kids.' Get to know the kids and their families on a personal level. Do your very best, have fun with the kids, and if you love it, that energy is going to be contagious and they're going to love it, too."

Kelly Ulmer, Santa Fe Trail Middle School
Kansas Teacher of the Year (secondary) nominee

Kelly UlmerFrom fourth-grade teacher to eighth-grade science teacher, Kelly Ulmer believes "if you're really going to make a difference in the future, it's going to be with kids." She began working in the district in 1999 as a fourth-grade teacher and is now in her third year as an eighth-grade science teacher at Santa Fe Trail.

Her inquisitive nature led her to the science classroom.

"I love seeing the kids questioning things and asking questions," she said.

As the daughter of a former kindergarten teacher, and a veteran teacher herself, Ulmer knows there's more to teaching than providing content and asking questions.

"What you do as a teacher isn't just the academic part. There's the social and emotional part, their welfare," Ulmer said. "I think being a teacher gives me the opportunity to do all those things."

She describes her teaching style as one where relationships with the students are the foundation for everything else.

"I like to get to know people and I think it's challenging when you teach secondary when you have over 100 kids but I really want to get to know every one of them," she said. "You have to build relationships before you can have those crucial conversations with kids because they're not going to respond to you if they're not somehow connected to you."

Her advice for new teachers is simple: Slow down and celebrate the small things. Teaching can be overwhelming and it's not an easy job.

"Remind yourself 'I wanted to do this for the kids. I wanted to do this to make a difference'."

Kathleen Wilhite, Olathe South High School
Emporia State University Master Teacher nominee

Kathleen WilhiteAfter more than 30 years as a math teacher in the Olathe district, Kathleen Wilhite is considering retirement, but not before imparting some words of wisdom about a subject many people feel challenging.

"I believe everybody can learn math," the veteran teacher said. "It is a matter of pacing and making sure that everyone is on the same page with me and that they all have an opportunity to do the problems. If they don't understand why it works, they're not going to remember it."

Her own interest in math began at an early age.

"I recall that since I was the oldest I made my brothers sit down in the basement with a chalkboard and I would teach them how to do math problems," she said. "I'm not sure they were as enthralled as I was but it just seemed like a natural fit for me."

Through the years she's helped others build a strong relationship with math. In fact, she said her greatest accomplishment is "the number of former students who have gone into math education and keep in contact with me.

"It's so fun to get emails from them when they're doing something new," Wilhite said. "Two of the calculus teachers in Olathe are former students as well as two people in my own building."

Speaking of colleagues at Olathe South, Wilhite said her advice for new educators would be to find people to work with. Her own experience with a Professional Learning Community is the biggest advantage she has to share ideas.

Her other bit of advice for new teachers: "Hang in there. The first two years are the most difficult because everything's new. Give it time."