KAYLA SHIRLEY, seventh-grade mathematics teacher at Gilbert School, poses with some of her students. Shirley is a semi-finalists for Louisiana Teacher of the Year. (Submitted photo)

Kayla Shirley, a Gilbert School seventh-grade mathematics teacher, is one of 24 teachers named as semi-finalists in the Louisiana State Teacher of the Year competition.

Approximately 200 teachers statewide were vying for the top award in the first round. Currently, Shirley is participating in Zoom interviews with judges in hopes of becoming one of nine finalists for the award.

The finalists will be announced in June and winners will be honored in an October gala. During the annual celebration of top teachers, the elementary, middle school and high school teachers of the year will be announced along with the overall teacher of the year.

Shirley, a 2004 Crowville High School Bulldog graduate, took an “alternate” route in becoming a teacher. Before entering the classroom, Shirley spent seven years working in the medical field as a Continuing Medical Education (CME) program coordinator at St. Francis Medical Center in Monroe.

As her child grew older and entered school, Shirley started looking for ways to get closer to home. She found the Alternative Teacher Certification Program through ITeach Louisiana.

She soon found herself in the classroom at Gilbert School and admits, as a first-year teacher there were surprises waiting for her.

“My first year of teaching was an eye-opening experience,” Shirley, who has been teaching five years, said. “I was blown away by the difference from what I assumed it would be and what it was actually like.”

By her second year, Shirley was accustomed to the daily grind and obstacles educators face and she, “hit the ground running.”

Secret to Kayla Shirley’s teaching success?

Relationships with her students built upon trust.

“Technology has a role in teaching, but it is not the primary role,” Shirley said. “First, I work on the relationship between teacher and student.”

In teaching mathematics, many times students learn through trial and

error, but having an error may hurt a student’s confidence.

“I try to teach them that it is OK to make a mistake,” Shirley said. “I’m their biggest cheerleader. I try to come in each day with a positive attitude and greet everybody, even if they aren’t my student.”

Additionally, Shirley focuses on teamwork activities inside her classroom and incorporates technology as an intervention tool.

“Technology is a good support, but building relationships is key,” Shirley said.

With the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order, Shirley and fellow teachers have had to “adapt” and “embrace” alternative ways of teaching.

“We are going to find ways to be successive in teaching our students,” Shirley said. “I never would have guessed when we got out for spring break, that would be the last time to see my students’ faces in a classroom.”

Franklin Parish teachers soon found themselves putting together paper packets and on line courses. Shirley meets twice a week with students through a Zoom conference. In the beginning, Shirley exclusively concentrated on teaching math, but as time went on it progressed into something of more importance.

“At first, I was heavy on math content,” Shirley said. “But, after a little while some of our meeting time became catching up with each other. We have even had an impromptu ‘meet your pet session.’”

Shirley realized the students needed something more than math.

“I had my biggest ‘aha moment,’” Shirley said. “These students have been through a lot. They needed each other and needed that time with each other.”

Franklin Parish teachers will soon be in the classrooms molding, shaping and educating future leaders, but maybe next time they meet one will be Louisiana’s Teacher of the Year.

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