Kelly Humphrey may be the teacher of the year for Niceville High School, but she’s quick to tell you that she wasn’t the first person in her family to win a Teacher of the Year Award. Years ago, her sister, a teacher at Bluewater Elementary, won. “I remember how excited and proud I was for her when she became the teacher of the year,” Humphrey remembers, “I remember consciously thinking to myself when I first started teaching, ‘I’ll never win teacher of the year, and that’s ok.’”
But she did!
Humphrey, an English teacher, was nominated by another teacher earlier in the school year. She made it through several rounds in order to be named a finalist – and then the school’s teacher of the year. In total, about 90 faculty members are eligible for the award at Niceville High School.
Humphrey left journalism and started teaching six years ago. She’s the first to admit she wasn’t so sure she would make it through her first year. “I’ll tell you straight up, and it’s not secret, [I’ve told] everyone I’ve talked to about my first year of teaching; I thought I’d made the biggest mistake of my life,” Humphrey said. She had no teaching certificate, no professional teaching background and no education degree when she stepped on campus half a decade ago.
Ultimately, Principal Marello took a risk when he hired her, she said. She credits the robust support system the Okaloosa County School District put in place for new teachers for her ability to, at first, survive and then thrive as a teacher.
“I’ve done a lot of hard things in my life. [Teaching] was the hardest job I have ever done in my life. And so, the first year – and even into the second year – I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ It wasn’t until the third or fourth year that I started to gain the confidence to be able to teach.” Humphrey added, “As a journalist, you get to see people on the worst day of their lives. You see the best of humanity, and you see the absolute worst of humanity. And nothing I did as a journalist was as hard as that first year of teaching.”
Despite the struggles, she says it’s worth the look on a kid’s face when they overcome a struggle and learn something in her classroom. She points to the kids in her Fiber Arts Club (her other passion is crochet and knitting) as prime examples. “Seeing kids master the art of crochet or knitting and hearing a kid say, ‘dude, I’m doing it, I’m really doing it!’ is just the most rewarding thing you will ever experience as a professional.”
Humphrey credits a vignette from an NHS faculty meeting for her teaching philosophy. Principal Charlie Morello led the meeting and told the group their main goal is to ensure the children feel cared for – and that learning will take place after that. In addition to imbuing her students with the knowledge they are cared for, she wants them to appreciate the beauty of the written word. “I hope that they learn a love of language; that they learn to appreciate when a writer really nails something,” she continued, “One thing I tell them over and over again: words have power. And if you don’t think so, read Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Every part of [Paine’s work] changed the world. It changed our history. The Declaration of Independence changed the world. Yes, there was a war. But why do people fight that war? Because the words made them think [thoughts like[ ‘I’m a free person, I should be able to do what I want. So, I want them to walk away from my class knowing that words have power and then how to use their words in constructive, not destructive, ways.
Humphrey teaches English to high schoolers – meaning she’s mastered everything from teaching the gerand (I asked her about it) to the realist and romance literary movements. In a past life, she was a reporter and editor at The Northwest Florida Daily News and the Crestview Bulletin. Her passion for journalism propelled her and her students toward creating a top-flight student newspaper, the Eagle Echo, which recently won several awards at a competition at Troy University. The Echo is one of many clubs at the school in which students can participate.
Humphrey, who wrote for an earlier iteration of the paper in her high school days at Niceville, beams when she talks about the students who have taken up the mantle of the paper. “The newspaper, to me, the most important thing about the newspaper, whether it be a printed product, or a newspaper, that’s a digital product, is that it gives a platform for student voices, student voices, where they can express their opinions, and student voices, where they can recognize their accomplishments, their fellow students’ accomplishments, and the school’s accomplishments. I mean, many of our stories are about teachers or other staff members. We know because we want to kind of shine a light on teachers who are doing interesting things and extraordinary things.” She says the credit for the paper’s success go to the founding faculty sponsor of the Eagle Echo, Christy Ellis, and the novelty of a printed paper. “I would be willing to bet that 95% of them have never had a newspaper in their home. Because let’s face it, I would say the majority have never had a newspaper in their home. So a newspaper is a novelty. And, because it’s a novelty, I think it kind of piques their interest.” The paper supports itself through sponsorships, which allow them to print about 400-500 copies for its bi-monthly issues.
Sure, the kids on the newspaper staff write articles – but the paper is a team sport. Students learn how to operate in a unit and work together toward a shared goal. They learn responsibility to others through meeting deadlines. “If someone doesn’t do their job, the newspaper is not gonna go out on time,” said Humphrey, “So these kids are like, ‘I didn’t know I could do this.’ And they feel they are a part of something bigger than themselves.”
Most kids on the paper won’t pursue journalism (it’s a trap, don’t do it!) But the skills they learn at the paper will prove indispensable to their success in the workplace. Things like working in a team, meeting deadlines, making uncomfortable requests of people who really don’t want to be on video or in print, and creativity. That list also includes confidence. “I want these kids to find their voice,” Humphrey said, “they might not use it in [a] journalism [career], but they will use it in their jobs.”
Humphrey insists the students, the other teachers, and mentors should get the credit for her teacher of the year nod. She says that their guidance and hard work to put out a newspaper caught the attention of the school’s other teachers, administrators and students. If not for their efforts and the efforts of the teachers around her to encourage her to remain and thrive in the profession – she wouldn’t have received the award in the first place.
Hot off the presses!! The first edition of the Eagle Echo has arrived - thank you to Editor Nick Ford for getting me the first copy and kudos to our newspaper staff and sponsor, Mrs. Humphreys for a job well-done!!— Charlie Marello (@NHSEagles1) September 30, 2022
GO EAGLES @OCSD1 pic.twitter.com/LUU3lN4ls2
Humphrey graduated from Niceville High School in 1980. Her brother and sister graduated from NHS as did her son. “My husband and I chose to live in Niceville, because we wanted our son to be able to go to school in Okaloosa County.”
Her favorite memory from High School in Niceville? Making her senior homecoming float. “We built a giant boot,” she remembers, laughing, “And, we were playing the wildcats. I don’t know who the wildcats are, but I’m sure we still play them. But [the theme] was ‘boot the wildcats.’ We had one of our friends sit under the boot which went back and forth and kept smashing him. He was in the uniform of the opposing team. We had so much fun building that.”
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