Voice Recognition

KSBA News Article

In Conversation With Mandy Perez

Mandy Perez

Kentucky School Advocate
May 2023

In Conversation With features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

May 8-12 is Teacher Appreciation Week. Mandy Perez, a 6th grade language arts teacher at Crittenden County Middle School, was named 2023 Kentucky Teacher of Year this past fall. She is in her 19th year of teaching and moved to middle school two years ago after teaching elementary grades for 16 years. She grew up in Union County and is a Murray State University graduate, the first in her family to graduate from college.

Q. Tell us about your reaction when it was announced that you were Kentucky Teacher of the Year during the ceremony in the Capitol back in September.

Gov. (Andy) Beshear was reading the description of the winner, and when he said the teacher attends children’s games, offers her time on the weekends, I realized he was reading from the letters of recommendation people had written about me. Then I thought, ‘I don’t even have a speech.’ Never in a million years did I think it was going to be me. As teachers, we all go in and try to do our best. We don’t think we’re No. 1, we don’t think we're the best. We’re all in this together.

Q. You are on sabbatical, working with the state Department of Education. Part of your mission is to encourage teachers to shine a light on why they have decided to stay in the classroom. What does that entail and how is it going?

What a fine time to be a teacher here, right? What with all that’s happening and the recent legislation. It’s difficult to motivate and encourage teachers to stay in the profession when you’ve got people coming in from the left and the right who are making the situation that much tougher. I too have felt defeated. I just try to stay positive. The day I won, Willie Carver (2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year) spoke and challenged the next Teacher of the Year to speak and use their voice. It’s been difficult. I have tried to speak, but my voice has been silenced by the outside noise that’s so loud. I’ve tried to share my story and ask teachers to not give up, to stay in the fight. If we all choose to leave the profession when the going gets tough, who’s left to fight for the kids?

Q. Have you met with teachers?

I have met with KDE’s Teacher Advisory Council about ways for teachers to stay in the profession. I haven’t gone to individual schools as a lot haven’t opened back up to volunteers or visitors. And I’ve been writing op-eds.

Q. You’ve been a teacher going on 19 years. What kept you in the classroom?

I was an elementary teacher for 16 years and needed a change, but I knew I wasn’t going to quit teaching. A principal in the district said she needed me to come to the middle school. I told her ‘I cannot teach middle,’ and she said, ‘I promise you can do anything.’ I was a math teacher my first year teaching at the middle school; reading is my passion and math isn’t my favorite subject. But my students were going to be kids I had taught as 3rd and 4th graders. I knew they were tremendous. They were excited I was going to be their teacher. We were all nervous – they were nervous about going to middle school; I was nervous about teaching math and a new grade level and being in a new school with new teachers. But I was glad to be able to be that constant for the kiddos, to provide that security. We were in it together and we did an awesome job together. It took that principal reaching out and believing in me. After two years at middle school, I became Teacher of the Year. That’s why I tell teachers that I know there comes a point where you get discouraged, but there is a place out there for you. You have to find it.

Q. You’ve mentioned that Salome Thomas EL, an admired educator and speaker known as Principal EL has had an impact on your career. Our members may remember him speaking at KSBA’s 2021 Annual Conference. Why does he inspire you?  

When I was going to teach math in middle school, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I started following Principal EL on Twitter. He would post about being a leader, staying focused. At the time ‘choosing to stay’ was his message. I reached out and told him a bit about my situation and that I was choosing to stay. From that moment, he would DM (direct message) me. I’d get a message before school, “Ms. Perez, keep your head up.” For someone like me, a small-town rural teacher who no one knows or notices, his messages meant everything. I ordered one of his shirts that says ‘I choose to stay’ on the front and on the back ‘my kids are worth it.’ I wore it to school. Everyone loved it. I sent him a message and said, ‘Your shirt was a hit.’ Then I took a picture of me wearing the shirt with my students and posted it on Twitter and he retweeted it. My kids were like, ‘We’re famous!’

When I won Teacher of the Year, he was one of the first people I told. I said something like, ‘Sir, during my lowest point of my profession, it took someone like you who didn’t even know me, but who put some faith in me to help me believe in myself and help me believe that I can do this.’ My kids are worth it, and I am a valuable asset to this profession. He said he was proud of me and touched that I thought to reach out to him.

Q. As teacher ambassador for KDE, one of your plans is to encourage schools to remake their libraries. Can you tell us more about this?

My platform was originally to open up our traditional libraries to have more built-in learning laboratories, but when I presented it to the commissioner’s Student Advisory Council, many students told me they already had maker spaces in their public libraries. Another said her school was being rebuilt and it was going to have Social Emotional Learning spaces throughout. I also learned that there are considerations that vary from school to school like budgets, staffing, logistics but also opportunities like grants for SEL spaces. I have a meeting scheduled to visit Eminence’s school library in May to see its phenomenal space. I’m excited to go there and bring back some ideas. My vision now is to look at some things school districts can do to integrate these SEL spaces into their libraries.

Q. Working with KDE, what have you learned about the policy side of education that you didn’t realize before?

For so long as an educator, my colleagues and I have complained. We have asked, ‘Why does no one listen? Why don’t they care?’ We felt alone. In only took a week of being at KDE to realize I was so wrong. There are so many departments working day in and day out to support students and to support staff. We don’t have any idea all that they’re doing for us. There is a breakdown in communication somewhere. If teachers knew what all they were doing here, they would be so grateful.  

Q. You’ve said that you almost didn’t complete the application for Teacher of the Year after you found out you were nominated. What made you do it?

The person who nominated me was the reading teacher before me at the middle school. When he moved to the high school, I became reading teacher. We had worked together for a year. I have a huge amount of respect for that educator. For me to have an impact on someone within one school year and for him to nominate me for such an award, I felt like I owed it to him to pay back the respect.

Q. What can school board members do to encourage and influence current teachers to stay in the teaching profession?

Get to know each teacher in the district so that when the time comes and a situation arises, because the time will come, the board can be there to support teachers individually and personally. It’s going to be tough with the new bills – understanding them, following them – and parents are going to push those bills. It’s going to take a lot of understanding, patience and support. Teachers need the support.

Q. Do you know your school board members?

Yes. I’m very thankful for my school board members. When I met with other Teachers of the Year from around the country at a conference, I heard some stories about what their school boards weren’t allowing them to do or participate in as Teacher of the Year. I was flabbergasted. I haven’t experienced anything like that in my district. They have been 100% supportive.

Print This Article
© 2023. KSBA. All Rights Reserved.