Kentucky’s Teacher of the Year

By John Gregory | 12/13/16 8:00 AM

Being named Kentucky’s Teacher of the Year for 2016 gave Ashley Lamb-Sinclair a unique opportunity to take a break from her classroom duties and travel across the state and nation to meet other education professionals. She says the experience has reminded her how powerful and influential teachers can be.

“It doesn’t matter what policies come down from Frankfort, nationally, [or] from even the administrative office in each school building,” Lamb-Sinclair says. “I’m the one who closes that door and works with kids, and I’m the one who looks at a parent in her face or his face and tells them, here’s what I’m seeing with your child. I’m the final decision-maker on everything education.”

The North Oldham High School English and creative writing instructor appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss her views on teaching and education policy in the commonwealth.

Loading video player...

Helping All Students Find Success
Lamb-Sinclair says she’s a prime example of how education can change the life of a young person. She grew up in Boyle County in a lower-class family with parents who weren’t involved with her school activities. What they did do, however, was cultivate in her a sense of independence, curiosity, and motivation to learn. Ultimately, she says, that’s more important for any parent to do rather than help with specific homework assignments or attend PTA meetings.

Lamb-Sinclair credits her academic success and desire to become a teacher to her experiences attending the Danville independent school district. There, she was exposed to students of diverse backgrounds and teachers who inspired her curiosity and desire to learn.

“I’m a huge advocate for all kinds of kids to be exposed to multiple perspectives,” says Lamb-Sinclair. “Our world is changing quickly and it’s really important for kids to have those different perspectives.”

After a bachelor and master’s degrees at the University of Kentucky, Lamb-Sinclair taught at Lexington’s Bryan Station High School and Louisville’s Myers Middle School before landing in Oldham County in 2012. Her time in high- and low-performing schools convinced her of the ability of teachers to change the lives of students.

“At the end of the day the difference between success and failure, if you want to call it that, is the classroom teacher – period,” Lamb-Sinclair says.

It’s not just any teacher, though.

“If you have an empowered classroom teacher, who is granted autonomy, who is given professional development that is of quality, who has experience in the classroom, is able to collaborate authentically with his or her peers, you can make a difference in any kid’s life regardless of where they come from,” she says.

Students also need to learn from teachers of color, says Lamb-Sinclair. She says the black teachers she had in school were some of her most inspirational instructors. And since society is growing more diverse, Lamb-Sinclair says students need the opportunity to interact with and learn from a wide range of teachers. She adds that teachers of color can also serve as important role models for minority students.

Engaging Teachers in Policy Debates
Despite what test scores may indicate, Lamb-Sinclair argues that public education is not broken in the commonwealth. She says an end-of-year multiple-choice test simply can’t measure the entirety of a child’s educational experience. To see the good things that are happening in Kentucky schools, she says you have to spend time in the classroom.

That’s one reason why she encourages her fellow educators to be more active in the legislative process. She says most lawmakers simply don’t have the proper background to adequately assess education policies.

“Just because you went to public school does not mean you know how to teach, does not mean that you know how to run a school,” Lamb-Sinclair says. “If you want to talk about improving public education, then you have to leverage those people who know what they’re doing, and the people who know what they’re doing are the classroom teachers… You have to give them a true voice.”

Lamb-Sinclair created a website called EdPolicy.org where teachers can learn about pending education legislation and share their opinions and questions about those bills. She says lawmakers need to hear immediate feedback from classroom teachers to better inform their policy debates. And she hopes more educators will run for school boards and other public offices so they can more directly influence education bills.

She also hopes the business community and educators can collaborate more on shaping school experiences that can lead to career opportunities. She says it’s not enough for young people to simply get a job, but they need to be able to secure meaningful work enables them to contribute to the world. Lamb-Sinclair advocates for every school to offer all students vocational, home economics, and other classes that give them hands-on experiences that can be useful throughout their lives.

Web App to Foster Creativity
As if being a full-time, award-winning teacher wasn’t enough, Lamb-Sinclair is also an entrepreneur. She is the founder and CEO of Curio Learning, a desktop application that will allow teachers around the world to collaborate on projects, inspire one another, and foster innovation in the classroom.

The idea germinated last year when Lamb-Sinclair participated in a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initiative for educators called the Redesign Challenge. She was selected to go to Washington, D.C., to go through a guided process of developing and prototyping her idea. Thanks to seed funding from the Vogt Awards program in Louisville, Lamb-Sinclair says she hopes to launch a beta version of the app in February.

“Teachers deserve the opportunity to be passionate and creative,” Lamb-Sinclar writes on the Curio Learning website. “This is about being part of a creative revolution, one teacher at a time.”