Wyandotte High School teacher Whitney Morgan's classrooms look and sound like a United Nations gathering with students from Brazil, Myanmar, Ghana, Guatemala, Ukraine, Honduras, Uganda, Mexico, Nepal and other countries.
Morgan, the 2019 Kansas Teacher of the Year, said during a visit Tuesday to the Kansas Capitol that she routinely was responsible for students who speak English and more than a dozen other languages. Her students exhibit varying degrees of literacy and reflect inconsistent exposure to formal education. Most have lived in the United States for less than three years.
"As a teacher, my pursuit is to ensure that each student in my class is given equitable access to learning and opportunities for growth and success," she said. "It is my job to meet each child where they are while simultaneously holding them to a high standard."
She stays awake some nights questioning whether she is keeping pace with emotional, social and academic needs of these kids. That quest for deeper relationships, targeted interventions and personalized learning experiences with students would be easier, she said, if Kansas officials could reduce class sizes, expand teacher development programs and reconsider data used to drive instruction.
"We can reimagine what education looks like, sounds like and feels like so each student and teacher, unique in their own right, can learn and contribute," she said.
Morgan was among a group of eight elite teachers who shared visions of educational attainment with members of the House and Senate. The others were regional teacher of the year winners in a competition administered by the Kansas State Department of Education.
Sharon Kuchinski, a Leavenworth High School social studies instructor, recalled serving as mentor to a student named Daniel, who expressed interest in a teaching career. He was bright, inquisitive and academically focused, she said. Eventually, Daniel was persuaded to focus on a college engineering degree because the modest salaries of teachers would make it difficult to afford a top-ranked university.
"We cannot afford to lose students like Daniel," Kuchinski said. "The current reality of the teaching profession is that we're facing a crisis in recruitment."
Megan Clark, an art teacher at Clear Creek Elementary in Shawnee, said she interacted on a weekly basis with 600 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. These regular classroom experiences build students' motor skills, self-expression and creativity, she said.
"Each child is unique and special to me. Watching them grow constantly confirms for me the importance of arts education. Your support of arts education is critical," Clark said.
Halstead High School social studies teacher T.J. Warsnak said no one should dismiss the role of extracurricular activities in ushering students toward academic achievement. He said activities on the stage or field build "leadership, resilience and organizational skills and support academic rigor."
Nicole Corn, a kindergarten teacher at Sunset Hill Elementary in Lawrence, said her pupils benefited from links to peers in China and Kenya.
"My students now have a better global awareness," she said. "Kindergarten is a critical time for exploration and to expand their minds."
Signe Cook, a fifth-grade math and science teacher at Park Elementary in Great Bend, said she was anxious about the fate of the two-thirds of students in the U.S. who experience trauma by age 16.
She said the influence of school counselors on children suffering from sexual abuse or engaging in self-harming activities can't be understated. She said the standard ratio of students and school counselors was 250:1, but the ratio in Kansas stood at 473:1.
"Children are dealing with so much more than they were five and 10 years ago," she said. "Trauma is everywhere, not just in the urban areas, but also in rural communities."