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Kiara Thorpe named 2021-2022 Beginning Teacher of the Year

BT of the Year

Kiara Thorpe, Beginning Teacher of the Year, On Being a Revolutionary Teacher

When English Teacher Kiara Thorpe walks into the historic Hillside High School each day, her aim is to assign lessons that are thought-provoking, memorable, and most of all, educational for her students. She aspires to be that teacher whom her colleagues seek out for ways in which to successfully engage students, to be the one whose students–one after the other–get that “Aha!” look on their faces when they understand the assignment. Last week, only two years into her already illustrious career, Durham Public Schools informed her that she completely understands her assignment as a teacher. Named DPS’s Beginning Teacher of the Year, the Hillside High School teacher is known for her inquiry-based, anecdotally annotated lessons.  Now teaching and coaching the Junior Varsity cheerleading squad, the Hillside High School graduate has returned to keep the momentum going.


Thorpe says her energy and enthusiasm for becoming a professional began early.


“I distinctly remember asking my parents for an easel and a beret because I had decided that I wanted to be an artist, and I needed to have the tools for that career,” said the former member of Hillside’s Teacher Cadet corps. She described herself as imaginative, an avid reader and lover of books, and creative with a penchant for songwriting–one who will write a book one day. But it was during her senior year at Hillside High School that she chose her career path in teaching. In her International Baccalaureate classes, she loved seeing that look on her peers’ faces when a teacher helped them to understand the material being taught.


“I knew that this was something I was interested in. I’ve always been attracted to reading and writing,” she said, noting that she and her mother would visit the library very often to read and share stories.


Now she has stories of her own to share, starting with the one when Durham Public Schools was lucky enough for her to decide upon teaching and return home to do it. It was after her experience as a Teacher Cadet during her Senior year at Hillside that she knew she wanted to teach. She served as a literal student teacher at Shepard Magnet Middle School and wishes she could find the teacher, Ms. Washington, one of her main influencers.


“I wish I could find her and give her some flowers,” she said.


And there was Dr. Ronda Taylor Bullock, the first African-American teacher she had who “showed up as her full, authentic self with a ‘fro!," said Thorpe. "Not to mention her amazing content. I so wanted to be like her.”


On coming home after graduating from Spelman and Vanderbilt universities, Thorpe speaks about the juxtaposition of escapism versus returning home. “There is still honor in coming home and returning home. That’s the idea of *sankofa anyway, the aspect of returning back home and returning where you started so you can give back to the people who need it. (Sankofa is an African word from the Akan tribe in Ghana. The literal translation of the word and the symbol is “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.”)


Thorpe admits she had choices, but the pandemic drew her back to Durham as a safe haven.


“I do not regret it and I’m glad that my story happened the way that it did.”


Thorpe’s Professional Learning and Federal Programs Mentor Devin Aucoin is in agreement.


“Kiara Thorpe is an amazing teacher and a delightful person to work with,” Aucoin said. “She is deserving of the Beginning Teacher of the Year award because she works hard for her students. Working closely with Kiara during her first year of teaching, I was able to see her develop and create her own teacher craft. Her first year of teaching was during virtual learning. When I would do virtual classroom visits, the online environment was so warm and accepting. She checked in with students; she went above and beyond to make a virtual classroom and virtual learning comfortable and achievable for all of her students. Now that we are back in face-to-face settings, she continues to connect with her students and provide an atmosphere of comfort for learning.”


Being recognized as the Beginning Teacher of the Year makes Thorpe feel joyful and simultaneously grateful. She recognizes that she stands on the shoulders of those who have traveled this way before her and that she works alongside excellence. She even admitted to feeling a twinge of imposter syndrome.


“There are many out there who commit to the work, and I’m being acknowledged for this?” she said. “Because what I’m doing feels real average. It’s real regular! But all of the work is not in vain. The times when I feel like I’m pulling teeth with students and trying to bribe them to do work, or I am trying to get them to see their own potential…is being acknowledged.” 


As a teacher, she now understands the struggles that many students face when school doesn’t serve them well. She points to her privileged upbringing, with two parents in the household and support for her endeavors. Teachers can reduce the struggle’s effect on the psyche of a student. It’s the small things that make a difference for any and all students, she said.  


“When they walk in the room asking if I notice that something is off. If I notice that you‘re walking in with your head down, or I notice that you’ve got your head down on the desk during the warm-up, like how are you today? I mean it’s simple, it’s not anything revolution…well…” She stops herself mid-sentence and quotes Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Revolutionary Dreams”


if I dreamed natural

dreams of being a natural

woman doing what a woman

does when she's natural

I would have a revolution. 


“Even that small thing is revolutionary for a student, for someone to ask them ‘how are you doing today’, and for it to not instantly be about what is the work that you are doing?”


She and her next door classroom teacher Jahara Davis share Shout Out Fridays, when students shout each other out for something they’ve done throughout the week.  She also facilitates restorative circles to discuss sweet and sour moments in their lives.


“It feels like they’ve offered something to the (classroom) space. That’s something they can bring to the space outside of their intellectual brain,” she said. Their home life is not usually the priority, said Thorpe. But it is groundbreaking–and a priority–for her.


Thorpe says she started her journey with a very simple goal: to be a Master Teacher. “I wanna be the OG veteran teacher where people ask me, ‘How do you do this thing? I’m so lost. I’m so confused!’,“ she said. 


During graduate school, her goals evolved around the Master Teacher concept she’s envisioned, and what that looks like. Coaching teachers and pursuing her doctorate degree are certainly among her objectives. Personal and professional continuous improvement is key, she said.


Thorpe’s principal, Dr. William Logan, who was also her principal when she was a student at Hillside, said she was a rising star even then. “I can’t say that I am surprised by Ms. Thorpe’s selection as our district’s Beginning Teacher of the Year,” he said. “The quality of teaching she provides her students is evidence of her preparation for the profession and commitment to excellence for all students. As an alumna of Hillside High School, I believe Ms. Thorpe possesses a greater mantle because she aspires to have each student reap the same benefits she did as a student at Hillside. I am confident that this is just the beginning of many accolades to come. I am so proud of this phenomenal educator.”


Being phenomenal is not easy, said Thorpe.


“It is not the easiest job,” she said. “If it were, everyone would do it. I would hope that a job–period–is life-giving, and so I think I'm learning how to navigate education in a way where it is still life-giving to me despite all of the things that are written in the fine print that are not really spoken, not part of your contract. Learning how to navigate a career has been a big lesson for me in the past two years. I’m honored.”