Since 2010, the Chicago Foundation for Education (CFE) has presented one CPS educator with the Jannotta-Jaffee Teacher of the Year Award. This year’s winner is Kat Henry, who has devoted eight years of her life to the students of Pulaski International School.

The Jannotta-Jaffee Award is presented to teachers who go above and beyond expectations to make great learning possible. This certainly describes Kat Henry, who has a true passion for teaching special education. As one of her nominators wrote, “Kat constantly challenges herself to learn new curriculum, partner with new teacher teams, and build strong relationships with students so they are primed for success as they enter high school”. She has the highest of expectations for her students, and has seen countless children transformed by their experience in her classroom.

Read more from Kat in the interview below.

Q. Why did you decide to pursue a career in education?

A. I think it was always in me to be a teacher. When I was growing up, my mom ran a daycare out of our house, and I was always teaching things to the little kids. And my friends could never come over for a play date without there being a list of organized activities. I guess those were my first lesson plans!

Q. What is rewarding about teaching students with diverse learning needs?

A. I teach middle school, which means that by the time they get to me, many of my students are pretty discouraged. They’ve convinced themselves that they’re just not good in school, and consequently, their self-esteem can be really low. I love helping them recommit to school and become more proud of who they are. I show them that for every challenge they may struggle with, there lies a strength waiting to be cultivated. It’s rewarding to see them find those strengths and remove the taboo around learning differences.

Q. What is your approach to connecting with students?

A. When it comes to curriculum, I believe in reinventing the wheel every year. Obviously there’s a foundation to draw from, but what we’re doing in class needs to be based on what each year’s students are interested in and how they best learn. I start each year with surveys and one-on-one interviews to get to know my kids, then use that information to plan project-based learning whenever possible. This year my group of Math students were interested in cooking, so I wrote a small grant to create a classroom kitchen where we’ll make their favorite family recipes. By cooking these foods, we’ll learn about fractions, measurement, and other key concepts in Math, and then I’ll invite their families in so that we can all share a meal. Activities like this round out my holistic approach to learning, and result in lots of authentic conversation in my classroom.

Q. What is your relationship with the Chicago Foundation for Education (CFE)?

A. This is a great organization for educators, so I’m truly honored to be their choice for Teacher of the Year. I wrote my first CFE grant six years ago – $500 to purchase quail and frog eggs that my students hatched as part of a life science unit. Since then, CFE has provided me with grants to help my students study robotics, coding, architecture, and even what makes people happy. I was the recipient of a FFT fellowship that took me to Aarhus, Denmark, which is reportedly one of the happiest cities in the world. By interviewing people there and filming a documentary, I was able to teach my students to broaden their definition of happiness and get themselves to envision what will matter to them ten and twenty years from now, which is a concept that many of them had never considered.

Q. What is your philosophy for teaching special education?

A. When you’re dealing with students who have learning differences and behavior challenges, it’s easy to hold them to lower standards. Easy to focus on their deficits rather than their strengths. What my career has taught me, though, is that this is exactly the wrong approach to take with these children. If we focus on what they’re capable of and convince them they can succeed, most students will rise to the occasion. My goal is to help them realize their worth, then watch them amaze me with what they can do.