Baltimore Teacher of the Year Finds Purpose in the Classroom

Dr. Sonja Santelises and Kyair Butts.
Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises celebrates with Kyair Butts, Urban Teachers Cohort 2012, who was named City Schools’ 2019 Teacher of the Year.

Finding Your Purpose is its Own Validation

By: Kyair Butts

When I first started teaching, I wasn’t very good. I didn’t go to college to be an education major. I didn’t take any education classes. I had scholarship money to go to Drake University because I was an All-American Mediator. I liked debating. I was good at it. And, everyone always said I should, so, my plan was to go to law school.

After graduating from Drake, I took my LSATs and planned to take a year off from school. At this point I started to realize that practicing law was not my purpose. I didn’t feel fulfilled when I thought about it, so how would I possibly feel joy and fulfillment doing it? But, what else was I going to do?

I started thinking about teaching and applied to Teach for America in Lincoln, Nebraska.  The interview was really great, with TFA, but the rejection letter came so quickly.

I headed back home and took a position as assistant debate coach at my alma mater, Lincoln High School in Des Moines, Iowa. I loved it. Debate Camp brings out the talkers and arguers, but what I discovered was, for me, school brought out the desire to mold potential into something special.

Teaching is a magical profession where I get to make a difference every day. I arrive and a classroom full of students are ready to learn with me and I am eager to learn from them. I realized, how important those things were for me. The interaction with students, being a role model for young people — young Black men in particular — helping prepare this next generation for their future, were the things in which I found my joy. I wanted to teach.

I knew I would have to take courses to get certified. I knew early on that teaching is hard work, but more often than not, hard work is worthy work.

I like to think I found Urban Teachers, but the truth is they found me. This sense of being found helped me find my true calling and I have been blessed to teach some amazing students across Baltimore City.

In Urban Teachers I found an organization ready and willing to help me be the kind of teacher that children deserve every time they walk into my class.

I received some of the best coaching a teacher-in-progress could ask for while teaching at Calverton Elementary/Middle School, where I did my residency. I was coached hard, asked to reflect, find areas I needed to improve and go back and do it again while trying new techniques. The support Urban Teachers offered helped me become Baltimore City Schools Teacher of the Year 2019, a truly humbling honor, especially when it became clear that it was not only my peers, but also parents who nominated me.

This award recognizes a single person. For me it is simply validation that my choice to become a teacher was the right one. More importantly, it also recognizes and validates my students’ hard work and that this was the right decision for them. But also, I understand it’s a collection and culmination of many people pouring into me that allows me to pour into my students every day. As I reflect on this journey, I remember the former Urban Teachers motto, “A Great Teacher Every Time.”

For the rest of my career, I want my kids to have a great teacher every time because it’s not only what they need, it’s what they deserve.

Kyair Butts is an Urban Teachers alumnus and former staff member. He now teaches English Language Arts at Waverly Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore. In April, Kyair was named Baltimore City Public Schools 2019 Teacher of the Year. With this distinction, he advances to the 2019-2020 Maryland State Teacher of the Year competition.