Inspiring Insights from Kelly Harper: The National Teacher of the Year Finalist

As an educator, Kelly Harper’s journey is a testament to the transformative power of teaching. Recently named the 2019 District of Columbia Teacher of the Year, and a finalist for the National Teacher of the Year award, Harper’s approach to education is both inspiring and thought-provoking.

In this article, we’ll delve into Harper’s philosophy, exploring her insights on topics ranging from culturally relevant teaching to advocating for policy changes, all while gaining a deeper understanding of what it takes to be an exceptional educator.

The Evolving Role of a Teacher

Harper’s role as a teacher has evolved significantly over the years. Initially focused solely on content delivery, she soon realized the importance of educating the whole child. “I’ve learned more about educating the whole child and understanding the child as a person,” she explains.

Harper emphasizes the need for social-emotional learning and support, recognizing that content alone is insufficient. She strives to help students make connections between what they learn and how they can apply it in their communities.

Partnering with Families: A Key to Success

One of Harper’s core beliefs is the importance of partnering with families. “I always let parents know that I know you as parents; mom, dad, grandma, or whoever you are, you are the first educator for this child, you are the expert on this child,” she says.

Harper actively involves families in their children’s education through various initiatives. As a family engagement leader, she coaches teachers on how to connect with families, including conducting home visits. These visits not only build trust but also provide valuable insights into students’ lives and interests.

Harper shares an example of how a home visit helped her better understand and engage a reluctant reader by tailoring the reading material to his passion for building and engineering.

Culturally Relevant Teaching

Harper’s approach to culturally relevant teaching begins with learning about her students’ communities. She incorporates familiar cultural elements, such as local community gardens, corner stores, and barbershops, into her classroom.

Diverse texts play a crucial role in her lessons, allowing students to see themselves represented while also exposing them to different backgrounds. Harper cites Walter Dean Myers’ “Harlem” as an example of a text that resonated deeply with her students, as they could relate to the living conditions depicted.

Inspiring Future Leaders

Harper’s commitment to her students extends beyond the classroom. She takes them on field trips to Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C. Seeing older students who look like them on a college campus creates a visible path to success and reinforces the importance of their education.

Advocating for Change

While Harper plans to remain in the classroom for a few more years, her ultimate goal is to become the United States Secretary of Education. Witnessing the stark disparities in educational experiences within her own family fuels her desire to enact systemic change.

Harper believes that true change requires having educators with on-the-ground experience at the decision-making table. Through her work as a Teach Plus policy fellow, she has advocated for initiatives like social-emotional learning training for teachers, which has now been implemented in her district.

Funding Equity: A Policy Priority

If given the power to change one policy impacting education, Harper would prioritize addressing funding inequities. She believes that schools serving the most vulnerable students require additional resources to truly level the playing field and address the unique challenges they face.

Advice for Future Educators

For those interested in becoming teachers, Harper’s advice is clear: build intentional relationships with students and their families. Creating a classroom environment that feels like a “home away from home” is essential for fostering trust and enabling effective learning.

Valuing Teachers

While Harper acknowledges that the teaching profession doesn’t always receive the respect it deserves, she finds encouragement from her students, parents, and colleagues. Witnessing the growth and achievements of her students, and the dedication of fellow educators, is what keeps her going.


Kelly Harper’s journey as an educator is a testament to the power of passion, empathy, and a commitment to creating meaningful change. Through her culturally relevant teaching practices, advocacy for policy reform, and unwavering dedication to her students and their families, Harper embodies the very essence of what it means to be an exceptional educator.

As she continues to inspire and shape the lives of her students, Harper’s story serves as a reminder that teaching is not merely a profession, but a calling – one that has the potential to transform individuals, communities, and the very fabric of our society.

Teacher of the year Finalist Kelly Webb


What do you say when nominating a teacher of the year?

I have gone to Kate with so many struggles as a teacher, and she is always supportive and full of gentle advice that never fails to help. I feel lucky to have Kate as a colleague, and I wish there were more teachers like her. Please recognize her skills and devotion to teaching by honoring her with this award.

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