News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

SHS graduate is Educator of the Year

Kate Tibbitts comes to her North Star Elementary School kindergarten class every day excited about teaching her students. She's rewarded and challenged by her students' unique personalities, learning styles, and stories. Watching Tibbitts teach reveals her skills and approach, grounded in life experiences and an education focused on helping students understand themselves and how their minds work.

In her 10 years of teaching, she hasn't focused on recognition or accolades, but last October the Bend-La Pine School District singled her out as a teacher worthy of the moniker "2023 Educator of the Year."

In November, North Star Principal Tim Burdsall and his staff planned a surprise announcement with students, Tibbitts' family, and teaching peers all in attendance. The Excellence in Education awards honored education staff including custodians, bus drivers, and classroom teachers. Recognizing exemplary staff began in June when Bend-La Pine Schools honored 77 staff members in the District who distinguished themselves through leadership, innovation, outstanding professional practice, and positive contributions at work and in the community.

Tibbitts was shocked when she learned she was being honored. She thought the school was doing a fire drill and that's why everyone was outside.

"I wondered why the fire drill was going on for so long, then I saw my dad there," she said. "There were six other nominees who are all such amazing educators. I make mistakes and fail every day; I do great lessons and terrible lessons and good days and bad days. I don't know what the best teacher is other than someone who gets up every day and starts fresh and keeps growing and learning. Maybe whoever made the decision to choose me could see that's who I am. I try to put kids and relationships and well-being at the center of what I do. I always try to do what's in the best interests of my students."

Tibbitts graduated from Sisters High School in 2007. Her high school years were a mixture of challenging and inspiring times. A self-identified introvert, she recalls fond memories growing up in Sisters, but high school was sometimes difficult for her. The support and lessons she learned from that adversity helped shape her to be the teacher she is today.

"In high school, I felt like I didn't fit anywhere and was so shy. It was hard. Now, I look back and wish I could talk to myself back then," said Tibbitts in her Bend classroom. "My whole life has been shaped by amazing mentors, including my mom and dad, Lora and John Nordquist. Growing up in a beautiful area we did tons of hiking. My parents taught me to find joy outdoors... that really saved me over the years. In high school I loved the academic part but struggled with the social pieces. After my ninth year, I chose not to go back."

After Tibbitts told her mom she didn't want to return to a traditional high school situation, Tibbitts thought she'd just get her GED and continue in that way. In the end, she decided to take some classes at COCC, which she loved. But something was missing.

"I missed aspects of high school, so I ended up going back part-time. I'd reached out to some elementary school teachers, Tina Fiedler and Mr. Hewitt, and they hosted me in their classrooms in the afternoons. I grew up always thinking that I'd be a teacher. I thought I'd be a high school English teacher like my parents but when I was really struggling, I found so much joy in the elementary school," said Tibbitts. "Eventually I went to high school in the morning and spent afternoons in the elementary school. That's where my eyes were opened to elementary education. The teachers were such an inspiration. They helped me navigate through a tough time and find my own way."

Tibbitts knows being able to curate an unconventional approach to her high school education was both a privilege and a blessing. Being given a chance to learn in a way that worked for her made all the difference to her eventual success. She credits Sisters High School's teachers and administrators with meeting her where she was and trusting that she'd make the most of the opportunity.

"I appreciated their flexibility. They knew I didn't fit the normal mold and they allowed me to find my way. I ended up graduating as a valedictorian. I went to school, did all the classes, but found my own path. I played clarinet terribly, but I liked music and the band people and the teacher, Mr. Henderson, who helped me too. I found a way to have a sense of safety and community along with great teachers," said Tibbitts.

"I have a strong connection to Sisters. It's funny and inspiring that my best friend, who I met in kindergarten, Kelsey Harpham, and I are still best friends. Our parents are still good friends, too. Another best friend from kindergarten, Stephanie Napier, went off and has done all kinds of interesting things. We just got together after so many years and it was so fun. She's teaching middle school in Redmond now," she said.

Looking back, Tibbitts can identify aspects of her personality and coping mechanisms that made things harder to handle. Growing up, she was a perfectionist and was often told she was good at things. That pressure almost broke her. By meeting fellow teachers and working together for years, she's been able to reframe herself as a woman, a mother, and a teacher.

"I have to mention my teaching partner, Jill Frazee; she taught in Sisters and mentored under my mom in Sisters, and she taught my brother, and now we're working together. I began teaching with her six years ago," said Tibbitts.

One issue that's important to Tibbitts is making sure classroom education is human-centered, while still considering the climate and the earth. She values her students with special needs and teaches all her students to be respectful and take good care of each other. She wants everyone to feel valued while having access to an education that fosters what makes them unique and allows them to bring their own contributions to the classroom.

"We have so many different needs in my classroom, including students for whom English is their second language. I want to make sure that everyone has a voice and has a sense of belonging," said Tibbitts.

When Tibbitts has free time, she and her husband, Josh, and their dog, Wallace are out hiking, camping, paddleboarding, and skiing. She's also an avid reader and loves to sit outside and spend time with her family and friends.

"My little bit of advice for those navigating the difficult world of high school is just to keep putting one foot in front of the other," she said. "Go easy on yourself and others. Remember that nothing is fixed, everything is malleable - your intelligence and abilities change, grow, and strengthen as you push through challenges, learn from mistakes, try new things, and solve problems with curiosity, creativity, and compassion. There is no perfection, but there is always growth if you keep moving forward!"


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