Meet Kitti Wheeler, Teacher of the Year finalist

Meet Kitti Wheeler, winner of ACTE’s Region V Teacher of the Year award. Wheeler’s interview appears as part of a spotlight series on our 2021 national award winners and finalists. This award recognizes career and technical education (CTE) teachers at the middle/secondary school level who demonstrate innovation in the classroom, commitment to their students and dedication to the improvement of CTE in their institutions and communities.

What is your job title and what do you do?

I am a business and marketing teacher & DECA advisor at Clover Park High School. In addition to teaching Business & Marketing and Small Business Management, I supervise our student store. When school is in normal session, we open for three lunches daily. Our top sellers are fresh baked cookies and smoothies. We also have our own heat press, and my students gain work experience designing and selling custom apparel. Our third source of revenue comes from selling custom stickers and award plaques. These three school-based business enterprises prepare my students for future employment by developing their employability skills. All of my students — especially my diverse students and students with disabilities — have a place to learn, to grow and, most importantly, to belong.

My favorite part of my job is DECA. I love the relationships I’ve developed with my students. DECA provides students with growth opportunities, encouraging them to take risks. They learn to believe in themselves.

What was your education experience like in general? What did you study?

My bachelor’s is in business education, and I have a master’s degree in computers in education. I do have a unique teaching experience. I’ve been teaching in the same school district for over 30 years. My first teaching job was at the junior high that I attended. My second school gave me the opportunity to teach my own son in class. And I graduated from my current school.

Please discuss the role of teaching in your life. Who or what inspired you to teach CTE?

During my senior year of high school, I worked full time and attended Clover Park Technical College. I moved into my own apartment at the age of 17. At the time, I had no plan or desire to become a teacher. Instead of majoring in business at the university, I opted for business education due to community college credit transfer issues. Teaching was my back up plan, but quickly turned into my passion. I get to share my enthusiasm for business and help my students thrive in school.

How has COVID-19 affected CTE program activities in your school? How has it affected the wellbeing of your professional learning community at large?

In April 2020, our International DECA competition in Nashville was canceled due to COVID. Two of my students qualified. It was very disappointing. We had high energy and expectations due to success in the previous year when my team of three students earned top 10 honors!

This year the DECA conferences were virtual, and my membership and participation declined. One student qualified for state, but he opted not to participate. Three of four DECA officers underperformed in my class first quarter. Our students struggle to connect with virtual activities.

Teachers are struggling too. I was honored to present a teacher wellness workshop at two virtual conferences last summer. I’ve been concerned about teacher burnout, and COVID-19 increased the need for self care. I created a private Facebook group called Thriving Classrooms to support teachers with their own wellness and to share ideas on how include social and emotional learning (SEL) in their classrooms.

In what innovative ways have you engaged students to remain connected with their communities — and have fun — while social distancing?

Each day I strive to create a classroom culture that provides hope and encouragement by incorporating SEL. My students experience a daily dose of positivity and strategies for increasing their resilience. I begin class with upbeat music and journal entries. I am passionate about growth mindset and include reflections, gratitude, quotes and inspirational videos in my daily instruction. My students are more optimistic due to these practices, and I am also more passionate and energized as a result.

As an ACTE award winner, you are recognized for your efforts to sustain high-quality CTE programs for all students. What advice would you offer a new teacher?

First, I’d advise new teachers to set boundaries and establish a self-care daily routine. The job never ends and the needs of our students are enormous. And compassion fatigue will steel your energy if you don’t put on your own oxygen mask first.

My second suggestion is to get involved with your professional organizations and network. CTE instructors can feel isolated because we are often the only ones in the building teaching our content. Reach out and ask for help. Most teachers are willing and happy to support you with resources and encouragement.

Finally, learn from your mistakes. Don’t be too hard on yourself and celebrate your successes!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Yes! Teaching is hard, especially now, but my students journal entries and reflections put a huge smile on my face and in my heart. I’d like to share one of many similar responses to the following reflection question:

Mrs. Wheeler’s teaching includes: music, daily journals, quotes, gratitude and inspirational videos. Reflect on and describe how this has impacted you.

“When Mrs. Wheeler starts the day off with positive music, it makes me feel more awake and happier in the morning. The daily journals help me reflect on life and think about the positive things about it. The quotes have helped me with saying kind things to myself, because they are very inspirational. All the videos and worksheets have inspired me to be a better person, a better student, a better friend. All the things we do in class have just helped me view life in a better way.”

Learn more about ACTE’s 2021 national award winners.