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NewsJun 7, 2019

Baltimore Teacher of the Year goes above and beyond

Kyair Butts ’14 makes it his mission to close equity gaps for students

Kyair Butts holding his framed award.

By Georgia Sparling

Kyair Butts ’14 is never not a teacher. He coaches debate after school, invites students to volunteer with him on weekends and hosts an event called Brunch and Books one Saturday a month to promote reading and good grades.

“I think it’s necessary work. I recognize that it’s also above and beyond, but you’re willing to go above and beyond when you know it’s the right thing to do,” he says.

Suddenly, it becomes very apparent why, out of educators from 165 schools, Butts was named the 2019 Baltimore Teacher of the Year.

Although he is only in his sixth year of teaching, the Lesley graduate’s dedication has become visible to teachers and parents, several of whom nominated him for the award. Butts, however, didn’t expect to win and was surprised when school district CEO Sonja Brookins Santelises came to his classroom to give him the good news.

“This is such a big award and such a big title and distinction,” says Butts, who teaches sixth grade English language arts at Waverly Elementary/Middle School.

A native of Des Moines, Iowa, he applied for Lesley’s master’s in education program after realizing that law school wasn’t right for him. He’d always enjoyed coaching and helping people and thought these interests would be good for an educator. Through a partnership between Lesley and the Urban Teachers program, Butts found himself in Baltimore where he continued to work after completing his master’s in elementary and special education.

Kyair Butts teching with a finger pointing at something
Kyair Butts teaches sixth grade English language art during the week, but also coaches debate and volunteers frequently.

Teaching in an urban environment has been a good fit for Butts. He relates to the city’s diverse population, where more than half of students come from low-income households and over 60 percent live in single-parent households.

Butts also grew up in a single-parent home in “not the best neighborhood in Des Moines,” and his life experiences have only made him better able to relate to his students.

“I know what it’s like growing up with drugs and alcohol in the house,” he says. “I understand a single, working mom is not always able to help with school, even though she wants to. I understand life’s roadblocks,” he says.

Through Lesley, Butts also gained insight into what his role inside and outside of the classroom would be.

“He embodies what every child deserves in a teacher and male role model,” said Waverly Principal Tanya Green, in a press release from Baltimore Public Schools. “He is personable and funny – and he isn’t afraid to be his authentic self with his students. He genuinely cares for his students, and they feel it.”

Outside of the classroom, Butts encourages the kids to volunteer with him throughout the city, from picking up trash to helping at a homeless shelter.

“My job is to help provide opportunities and to expose students to the varied world around them,” he said.

He also hosts monthly brunches for kids who keep up their grades, which includes a trip to a bookstore so they can build their personal libraries.

It’s incumbent upon teachers to teach their students where they are, no matter what resources they have.
Kyair Butts ’14, Baltimore Teacher of the Year

Butts considers his profession to be uniquely positioned to close the equity gap that exists for many urban students.

“It’s incumbent upon teachers to teach their students where they are, no matter what resources they have. We don’t get to complain. It’s not our job to complain about that, it’s our job to teach them and to celebrate their success,” he says.

Over the next year, Butts will encourage other educators to follow his example as he speaks on professional development, coaches other debate coaches, writes curriculum for Urban Teachers and teaches graduate classes at Johns Hopkins University. He will also be in the running for Maryland Teacher of the Year.

“Work is relaxing for me,” Butts insists. Everything he does is to improve his teaching and create a richer experience for his students, just like a football player putting in hours of training. “Football players have often said, ‘When I get tired of all that stuff, it’s probably time to retire because I’m only looking forward to Sunday.’”

For Butts, every day is Sunday.

“I love lesson planning. I love diving into curriculum. I really enjoy professional development. Teaching is still fun and exciting for me.”