The way that Kim Thomas ’93 talks about math is infectious. Well, math-fectious technically.
When Thomas speaks, she drops in math-related puns and numerical references at a stunning, endearing pace. Everything is “math-tastic.” She wishes you a “Happy Math’Oween.” When she looks back on her 23-year teaching career she says, “In my 5 x 4 + 3 years of teaching, I’ve never had a bad day.”
So when you ask Thomas to describe her emotions after recently being named the 2016 Illinois Teacher of the Year, the Illinois State alumna was at a loss for words.
“I can’t even put into numbers how I feel,” said Thomas. “It was just that great.”
Thomas is a math teacher at Woodruff Career and Technical Center, which houses the Peoria school district’s alternative learning program. Every day, Thomas makes math fun and engaging for seventh- and eighth-graders who’ve struggled—or even been expelled from—traditional school classrooms.
“Mrs. Thomas uses her energy and dedication to motivate her students to learn and achieve in every lesson she teaches,” said State Superintendent Tony Smith. “She develops creative techniques to teach her students and challenge their attitudes towards math. Her enthusiasm for teaching is inspiring.”
Thomas was announced as this year’s top statewide educator during the 41st annual Those Who Excel/Illinois Teacher of the Year banquet in Normal in October. The elementary education alumna from the College of Education had already won her district’s top teaching prize.
Thomas is only the latest Illinois State grad to win statewide Teacher of the Year honors. Amy Laughlin ’98 holds that title in California in 2015, and four Redbirds did the same in 2014: Matthew Lawrence ’00 (Hawaii), James Ford ’03 (North Carolina), Jane Schmidt ’76 (Iowa), and Jamie Esler ’07 (Idaho). Thomas Bertrand ’02 was also named Illinois State Superintendent of the Year in 2015.
Thomas’ father was a teacher, but she was the first woman in her family to graduate college and work outside the home. Inspired by her own fourth-grade teacher’s commitment to “making each kid’s day” using little gestures—even just a smile—Thomas says she fell in love with teaching early on.
“I just got those goosebumps,” she said. “Every day you can make a kid’s day. That’s priceless.”
Thomas knows that her passion—math—gets a bad rap. It’s not every student’s favorite subject, especially in middle school.
So Thomas fights that perception by creating constantly evolving, kid-focused and fun math lesson plans. Her students play games like Ya-Math-Zee (yes, like Yahtzee) and Ca-Math-ouflage (a word-finding exercise). Every year, her students get a new theme song with a math twist; last year’s was “All About That Math,” a riff off Meghan Trainer’s pop song “All About That Bass.”
“When you come into my classroom, my goal is to make it the best part of your day,” says Thomas.
Jessica Miller ’15, one of Thomas’ former students, recently graduated from Illinois State herself. She says Thomas’ teaching made a big impact on her education and the way she will teach.
“All throughout my educational journey at Illinois State to become a teacher, I always looked back to the teachers that have inspired me the most. Kim Thomas is one of them,” Miller said. “Her passion for education and for her students fired a passion inside of me. I can only hope that one day when I have a classroom of my own, I can inspire students like Mrs. Thomas.”
Throughout 2016, Thomas will speak at teaching workshops and conferences, and she will represent Illinois at the NASA Space Camp in Alabama and the National Teacher of the Year program sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and ING.
“I’m excited to share my passion and love for what I do with future educators and those already teaching, and represent my peers,” Thomas said.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.