A local high school teacher was recently recognized as Educator of the Year by a national scholarly organization for her ability to connect with students while making classical literature relatable.
Meredith McCullough, a language arts teacher at Kenai Central High School, was chosen last August as one of 10 recipients of the 2019 Claes Nobel Educators of the Year. The award is given each year through the National Society of High School Scholars, which is an organization focused on helping high school students achieve their academic goals.
McCullough said that she was nominated by a former student who is a member of NSHSS, and after being selected as one of the finalists last summer McCullough was asked to write an essay about her philosophy and approach to education.
“For me, it’s valuable as an English teacher to teach grammar and spelling and literature, but the more important things are to help students become humans, and good humans, preferably,” McCullough said. “That we can give them the tools that they need to survive in the adult world and that we trust them and allow them to grow.”
In August of last year she was informed that she had been named Educator of the Year along with nine other teachers around the country and received a $1,000 grant that she used to update the classroom library and purchase other miscellaneous supplies.
McCullough said that teaching English in particular has allowed her to engage in broader discussions with her students without having to stick to a narrowly defined curriculum. For McCullough, the ability to have those discussions starts with being able to connect to students on a personal level.
“I get to know my students as well as I can and as well as they’ll allow me,” McCullough said. “I think that’s kind of the building block; you have to have a relationship with them, because if they don’t trust you, they’re not going to talk about difficult subjects.”
McCullough used the novel “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald as an example of how she gets her students to connect with literature that may seem antiquated or irrelevant.
“We talk about things like Daisy Buchanan, who is this traditional literary villain that everyone hates at the end because of what she does to Gatsby and Tom and her marriage,” McCullough said. “But we talk about, you know, within the historical context, what were the roles for women in the 1920s? What were the divorce laws? What were the child laws? What do you do with a marriage? How do you support your family?
“And then we bring it back down to this level about, OK, but she’s also in an abusive relationship, with alcohol abuse on both sides from her and her husband, and those are the hooks that really get them because we’re in Alaska. We have huge rates of abuse and alcoholism. The kids are familiar with that and they recognize things and they’re able to pull in personal connections to the book, and all of a sudden you aren’t just reading this old text from the 1920s.”
McCullough said the culture of mutual respect that she builds with the students in her classroom extends to their relationships with each other as well, and it allows them to open up about certain issues because they trust that their peers will be careful with that kind of information.
McCullough has been teaching for 12 years and has been at Kenai Central High School since 2011. Both of McCullough’s parents were teachers, but she said when she was growing up she never considered it to be a career option for herself.
“When I was in high school I wanted to be an author,” McCullough said. “I intended to go to a college that had a creative writing degree … and then in my junior year of college, I kind of had this breakdown that I’m pretty sure every college student goes through at some point.”
McCullough said she called her dad to say that she was dropping out of college and enrolling in culinary school. After a week, however, her anxiety had subsided and she was back to deciding what class to take to fill her schedule for the semester. Her dad recommended an Introduction to Education course, and before she knew it McCullough was figuring out how to complete an education degree with the two years she had left.
In addition to being named Educator of the Year, McCullough was recognized with the BP Teacher of Excellence Award in 2017.
McCullough’s approach to connecting with students and helping them achieve success boils down to simply recognizing them as people, and she said it starts with learning their names.
“Learn their names. Learn their pronouns,” McCullough said. “I realize that that seems really basic, but the goal is within the first two weeks of the year to have every single name or nickname that they want and their pronouns down. And it’s amazing how much that helps with things. Maybe that’s the writer side of me, but names have so much power and so much value.”
Another part of that, McCullough said, is the willingness to give students a clean slate when they are struggling academically or acting inappropriately.
“Everyone has really bad days,” McCullough said. “So there are days where a kid is off-task or they’re distracted or they say something that’s really hurtful to people, and taking the time to step aside with them and have that conversation and find out what’s actually going on … Most students, especially here, are really caring and thoughtful and empathetic, but a lot of times they haven’t experienced someone calling them out on something they’ve done that hurts other people.”
McCullough specifically mentioned that she advocates for students who are members of the LGBTQ community and defends their right to be acknowledged for who they are.
“It may make you uncomfortable, but at the end of the day, that is another human being and you have to treat them with the respect that they deserve,” McCullough said. “And I think that that is going to continue to cause a lot of conflict, because I will not budge on that.”