Kerri Palmer loves to learn, and she tries to instill the same passion in her first-graders at Gainesville Exploration Academy.
"I live and breathe teaching," said Palmer, who decided to follow her dream 10 years after graduating high school. "This is what I was meant to do."
Palmer, the Gainesville school system’s Teacher of the Year, said she always wanted to be a teacher, but never thought she could do it until her husband, Richard, encouraged her to go to college.
"I kind of always thought about it," Palmer said. "I just didn’t have the self-esteem."
One of the reasons for her lack of confidence came from bad experiences with teachers early in life.
"I never had a teacher that took interest in me. I struggled in school," Palmer said.
Her family life also was hard, and moving from school to school made learning a challenge.
"I come from a very poor background," said Palmer, who was a victim of abuse. "I was in and out of foster homes."
Because of her own experiences, she is especially sensitive to children with special needs.
"I really attach myself to the students that have more learning problems," Palmer said. "I think I’m more in tune to students that might have more problems at home because I came from a dysfunctional family. I know what it feels like. But still yet, I say it’s no excuse not to learn. I feel like if I provide a safe environment, a loving environment in my classroom it’s going to be conducive to provide them with the best learning situation possible because they’re secured and they’re loved in the classroom."
Priscilla Collins, principal of Gainesville Exploration Academy, said Palmer cares not only about her classroom but about the whole school.
"Kerri’s a wonderful teacher who always goes the extra mile," Collins said. "She’s been instrumental in forming a drama club here at the school; and she handles our yearbook, so this year she had a yearbook staff for the elementary kids ... she’s always willing to step up to the plate."
After getting a taste of higher education, Palmer is devoted to continue learning to become a better teacher.
Palmer already has a master’s degree and is working toward her specialist degree in curriculum instruction. Her ultimate goal is to get a doctoral degree in curriculum instruction.
"I love a challenge," Palmer said.
Palmer tries to challenge her children in the classroom as well by teaching each child based on abilities. One of the toughest things to teach first-graders is reading, she said.
"With first grade, it’s such a challenge to teach them to read. If they get behind with their reading they’re going to be behind the rest of their lives," Palmer said.
Gainesville Exploration Academy has a large Hispanic population, and teaching children to read can be especially difficult if English is not their first language.
"We have a lot of English language learners," Palmer said. "I’m teaching in a small group where I can focus more on what each child needs than a whole group setting."
Palmer often thinks of creative ways to help children learn who may have trouble learning the traditional way.
"I also like to add music to it. We like to do the Macarena math. I have a master’s degree in educational technology so I like bringing the technology," Palmer said.
Palmer said the best way to inspire her students to learn is through caring and respect.
"I try to show each and every child respect. Once I have their respect and I show them respect, they’re going to work their hardest. ... Show them that I care about them. When they know I care, they want to learn," Palmer said.