Milton Elementary School's Kati Ringer, a kindergarten special educator, was a as one of the district's Outstanding Teachers of the Year for 2014. She will be recognized at an award banquet next month for her efforts. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Milton Elementary School’s Kati Ringer, a kindergarten special educator, was a as one of the district’s Outstanding Teachers of the Year for 2014. She will be recognized at an award banquet next month for her efforts. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Each fall, schools around Vermont recognize their most excellent educators. In Milton and Georgia, colleagues nominate candidates for the University of Vermont Outstanding Teacher award, presented at an annual banquet. Up to 100 teachers are nominated each year in the 45 participating districts. This year, special educator Kati Ringer and guidance counselors Sharon King and Melissa Fisher will be recognized at the 34th Annual Outstanding Teacher Day on October 22. Learn more about them in this week’s issue.

Kati Ringer is the first to say that teaching kindergarten is not for everyone. Sure, there’s a lot of shoe tying and trying of her patience, but the students love learning, and as a teacher, that’s all she wants.

“It’s just a great age and they really love being here,” Ringer said.

A kindergarten special educator at Milton Elementary School, Ringer was awarded by her peers as one of the district’s two Outstanding Teachers of the Year, an annual honor bestowed at the University of Vermont in October.

Claire Eyler, an occupational therapist who works closely with Ringer, nominated the second-year teacher for her can-do attitude and creativity that helps struggling students learn.

With her background in art, Ringer uses students’ interests to make academic concepts more compelling. For instance, one student had a hard time with math, and knowing the child’s favorite cartoon character, Ringer drew it on strips of paper to spark an interest in counting. It worked.

“She seems to be able to do it in such a seamless and timely fashion, on the fly,” Eyler said. “Her brain just works magically like that.”

Ringer didn’t plan to work in this field. She studied history and studio art in college, then joined the Peace Corps in Guyana as an education volunteer, planning to be a social studies teacher.

Back stateside, Ringer worked as a paraeducator, assistant librarian and for an international development company before she got a master’s in special education. She also worked as an intensive needs programming specialist in Milton before getting her K-8 licensure.

As a new teacher, Ringer never imagined she’d get the award since her first year, like many teachers’, wasn’t the easiest.

Despite this, Ringer helped her students work through their own learning differences. She takes the time to get to know each student, often meeting them or their families before kindergarten even begins. At that age, too, the kids love talking about their hobbies and interests, making it easier for Ringer to embed those in her lessons.

The challenge, though, besides the nature of special ed, is time. Ringer finds it frustrating when paperwork and meetings tax the one-on-one time with her students, she said.

And her caseload isn’t small either. Districtwide, Milton’s 239 students receiving special education services in 2013 represented 14.4 percent of the student body, under the state average of 15.8 percent. But MTSD outpaces Vermont in incidence of autism spectrum disorders, (9.2 vs. 7.2 percent), developmental delay (17.6 vs. 14.3 percent) and speech-language impairment (10.9 vs. 9.2 percent), district data shows.

Eyler, who teams with Ringer to refine students’ motor skills, says Ringer teaches any student, without isolating them for their disabilities.

“She realizes that different brains work in different ways, and she really picks up on all those different intelligences,” Eyler said, noting that’s probably because Ringer possesses them herself.

Ringer says her greatest accomplishment isn’t one moment but all the little ones – helping kids recognize numbers, know their letters, speak full sentences or just put on a shoe. But students do this on their own time, and patience is something her students taught her unexpectedly.

“Whether they’re struggling to open up a container of food or they can’t get through a math problem, they want time to get through it on their own,” she said.

This persistence is another lesson imparted from students to teacher. Mostly though, they’ve encouraged her to have fun. She hopes they take that onto first grade, along with the knowledge they can do anything if they try.

“They’re not doing it alone,” she said.

Other outstanding teachers in 2014:
Sharon King: ‘She joys you up’
Melissa Fisher: An open door policy