Kari Brandon, a kindergarten teacher at Prairie View Elementary, could have been anything. She had full-ride academic and music scholarships to multiple universities. She would gladly be a professional student if she had the time to audit all the college classes that sound interesting. The 2017 Prairie View Elementary Teacher of the Year considered going into medicine, but went to college on a music scholarship. She found in the first year the degree meant taking music classes and little else.
“The second year I backed off and thought ‘What am I going to be able to do with a music degree other than teach music? Maybe I would like to teach everything,’ so i got certified in early childhood and elementary.”
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Coming out of college she taught for three years as a music teacher in Shawnee, then accepted a job teaching music at a private school in Edmond.
“I got to work with all the kids in pre-k all the way through eighth grade,” she said. “I fell in love with the babies.”
Brandon moved from teaching music to teaching pre-kindergarten, but she never stopped singing.
“When I sing, the kids stop and everyone is paying attention,” she said. “They’re immediately engaged. I use it in my classroom for everything.”
Brandon took a job at Lakehoma Elementary and eventually moved to Prairie View, earning a master’s at UCO in early childhood curriculum and instruction along the way. That degree opened her eyes to why music and movement had been so successful in her classroom.
“You have your left brained kids, you have your right brained kids, you have your musical kids, you have your kids who just like technology and that’s about it. You have to find a way to hook them,” she said. “Music is one of the ways that has really helped. I can say something and turn around and sing it and get them up to move while we sing and they learn it 10 times better than if I just say it to them and then have them go do something.
She’s adamant that the younger children must be allowed to move; they learn with play.
“More of the philosophy of early childhood is that children come to school to have the exposure and to get a lot of time to play and socialize. And here we are in America telling kids who are 4, 5 and 6 years old to sit down, be still and do this paper,” she said. “That’s not developmentally appropriate. They need those years to be social and play and do active things.”
In Brandon’s classroom, kids are moving in small groups from station to station and activity to activity. They come together as a group on the carpet for a lesson, usually one that involves song and dance.
“If we push them too early to try to sit down and do paperwork and focus, then it’s a struggle from then on out,” Brandon said. “A lot of kids, by the time they’re in the third grade, have hit a wall. They don’t enjoy it anymore and they want to stop because it hasn’t been developmentally appropriate for them up to that point.”
Even more than what they learn, Brandon wants them to know they are loved. Although all of her students are memorable, she remembers one child in foster care who had done something wrong at home. Her foster mother called Brandon to demand the girl not be allowed to participate in the upcoming class party. Brandon refused to punish the child at school for something that happened at home. The foster mother, visibly upset, showed up at the school. If Brandon wouldn’t keep the child from participating in the class party, then she would call DHS to have the agency take her back.
“I was in tears all day,” Brandon said. “I called my mom and my husband and said, ‘Don’t be surprised if I don’t bring home a little girl with me today.’ I called DHS all day. I had the principals calling DHS so I could get her because I couldn’t let them take her away.”
All day Brandon waited for the authorities to show up and pull the girl out of her class.
“She knew something was wrong and we cried together,” Brandon said. “And I told her how much I loved her. Every day I had to hold that little girl because she didn’t get it anywhere else. She didn’t like life but she felt safe here. She came to school and she needed me.”
The girl wasn’t taken away that day. She got to finish the year and then stayed for one more. Brandon doesn’t know where the child is now, but she hopes that the girl remembers she was loved and knows Brandon continues to think about and pray for her.
“I feel like if I can teach them that someone cares about them - and I hug them every day and I tell them I love them - that they’ll enjoy coming. We can get the ball rolling and they’ll enjoy coming to school for the rest of their lives.” Brandon is one of 14 Teachers of the Year for Mustang Public School. A district Teacher of the Year will be named at a special banquet in March