IEA member Todd Knight was recently recognized as Idaho’s 2022 Idaho Teacher of the Year. He got the news during a surprise ceremony at his school, Crossroads Middle School in the West Ada School District. We asked Todd about the honor, his background and philosophy, and the landscape of public education in our state.
Q-What was the moment like when you were surprised by the Teacher of the Year recognition? Now that you have had some time to digest it, what are your biggest takeaways?
A-The moment was shocking, unreal, and humbling. I didn’t go into teaching to receive accolades and awards. To be recognized with one of the most prestigious awards given by the state… it’s hard to describe it. It is akin to winning the lottery when you don’t remember buying a ticket.
The biggest takeaway for me is the incredible support that so many people have provided for me during my career–family, colleagues, students, administration to name a few. When you receive an honor like this and reflect on how you got to this point, you cannot help but see others’ influence and impact that make you who you are today.
Q-Do you have a specific theme or message in mind for using your Teacher of the Year platform to make things better for students and professional educators.
A-I do! There are a couple themes that come to mind. One brought about by the pandemic is that all the adults in our community need to be united for our students. When we argue and bicker, students pick up on that and get caught in the crossfire. Everyone I know cares deeply for students. We all want students to be successful, contributing members of the community. We need to have our actions reflect these goals.
The second message deals with standardized tests. The current system does not build our students up, nor does it empower them to take charge of their learning. The students who consistently make “Basic” start to internalize that label, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The student accustomed to receiving “Advanced” is devastated to receive “Proficient,” and is mentally crushed because of an off day. These high stakes tests don’t foster a love of learning, nor do they nurture a growth mindset. We need to recognize standardized tests for what they are: a snapshot into a student’s educational career, not the culmination of it. We need to shift the focus to individual students, fostering relationships, and helping them focus on their growth and achievements.
Q-How can our public schools do better in addressing the needs of students who have been marginalized for one reason or another?
A-The hardest part is that we educators are doing as much as we can to help our students. To throw more at us would cause excellent teachers to burn out and not give our students everything they need or deserve. We have said we need smaller class sizes and more assistance in the classroom, not more technology and curriculum options. We have said we need more time to help students learn how to learn, not learn how to take a test. We have said we need to be allowed to focus on our relationships with the students rather than the mandate to focus on their test scores. We have said we need to shift the focus to student growth, not on their placement in a proficiency scale. What we teachers need to help our students be successful is what we have been asking to receive for a long time: to have our professional voices heard and respected.
Q-How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
A-I have to say the old adage of “everyone can learn” has been a guiding philosophy behind my teaching, but it has morphed into something more relevant that I see based on my experiences: “Everyone wants to learn.” Students may not be able to focus that desire into their education, but the desire is very apparent. That’s where we teachers step in, finding a way to tap into that wellspring of desire and help students apply it to their own education. Doing this helps the students become active participants in their education, thrusting them into the driver’s seat of their educational experience, which ties into my second guiding philosophy: Kids need to own their learning and education, truly participating as an active driver, not just as passive passengers.
Q-How do you go about engaging students, especially at an alternative school?
A-There are so many interests competing for a spot in our students’ minds that it is difficult to completely hook every student every time. Something I have found to be more successful is having connections within the curriculum to the students’ lives such as making practice activities and story problems related to cell phone use or social media. Also, having students actively participating with the curriculum helps their engagement levels. There is a history teacher in our school who teaches European history and has the students tape a paper to the bottom of their desks to take notes on while she covers Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the Renaissance period.
Lately, I have been trying to have students move at their own pace through the curriculum, meeting me at checkpoints to confirm their understanding of the big ideas of each section/level they pass. Then they tell me if they are ready for the assessment based on their work at that level. I liken it to a boss in one of the video games they love. They must gather the knowledge/equipment to properly defeat the assessment/boss. So far, they seem engaged.
Q-How important is mental health support for students, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?
A-The only way you would not see how necessary this is for our students is if you are not part of the education system. The pandemic hit everyone hard, adults included. I know we can all name someone who has lost their job or given up on a dream because of this pandemic. Unfortunately, students are that oft-missed group during this hardship. Yes, their education was affected, but their lives were too! They have had to raise their younger siblings while parents and schools were out, learn “on the go” while riding in their parent’s delivery vehicle, or even be their own entry level tech-support for their school issued devices. They were witnesses to the hardships their parents went through in addition to their own. So mental health support is important for everyone, with possibly the greatest need being for our students.
Q-Where did you grow up and attend high school and college? Who helped influence you to become a teacher?
A-I am an Idaho native; born and raised in Meridian. I attended Meridian High School, where I begrudgingly signed up for peer tutoring. It was taking an elective slot in high school, which is a big commodity! After two weeks, I not only loved the teacher, but I also loved the students. I could tell you things I learned in that class that could not be obtained from a textbook, and they most definitely cannot be scored on any standardized test!
I learned enduring, loving patience from Marty Mundt, the ERR teacher for my four years there. I learned both compassion and passion from the brothers Justin and Kyle, fellow students I was able to be with for three years. Another student, Geoffrey, taught me a thing or two about overcoming fears and supporting each other, as we both learned via his acting class. The students and the staff members I worked with as a high school student inspired me to teach. From there it was just a small step to Boise State University, where I received my B.A. in Elementary Education.
Q-Anything else our members should know about you? Family? Pets? Hobbies/passions?
A-My family and I currently live in my childhood home, which we purchased from my mom so she could retire. She currently lives with us in a mother-in-law suite set up for her, where she can cross stitch, crochet, and knit while watching her Broncos play. My wife of 13 years and daughters (four and six) are on the main side of the house with our pup, our cat, and my brother. We happily play games of all types, read many books, and generally invest in each other as deeply as we can.