Crystal May, a fourth-grade teacher at Pray-Woodman Elementary School in Maize, was recognized Thursday as one of the nation’s top educators, receiving the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence.
May will travel to Washington, D.C., in February to receive the award – and her $10,000 prize – from the NEA Foundation. One of the five recipients will receive an additional $25,000 award.
May is the only teacher in Kansas to receive the award this year. It honors educators for their diligence and dedication to students, colleagues, community and the profession.
“My kids are always so appreciative and they’re just great motivation to continue to do what I do,” May said during a surprise ceremony in the Pray-Woodman teachers’ lounge Thursday. “I don’t necessarily need a big, grand gesture.”
The officials behind the award said it’s important to honor educators.
“It’s a thankless job. … Especially over the last 20 or 30 years, parents don’t always back up the educators as much as they used to, and that’s very tough for them,” said Robert Curtis, assistant regional vice president of Horace Mann, an insurance company named for the 19th-century reformer and advocate for public education.
“A lot of teachers go into it as a calling. They want to be able to help students, and whenever they’re not getting the support they need, it makes it a really tough job.”
May is a leading advocate of small-group math instruction at her Maize school. She and colleague Angela Knapp received a $10,000 grant from a Virginia-based nonprofit to help Pray-Woodman teachers get a better understanding of grade-level math standards and develop strategies for teaching them.
Last year, she was a finalist for Kansas Teacher of the Year.
She was nominated for the Horace Mann award by the Kansas National Education Association, a National Education Association affiliate.
Maize superintendent Chad Higgins said she “does a little bit of everything” at Pray-Woodman and throughout the district, advocating for her students and for public education and serving as a role model.
“She’s one of those (teachers) who wants to be a leader in the classroom and beyond,” Higgins said. “They want to drive change. They’re not afraid to push the limits, test boundaries, and we want to be able to give them that flexibility.”
May is in her 19th year of teaching. She started college in hopes of becoming a veterinarian but quickly became discouraged by professors who “drained the joy out of learning,” she said. That’s when she decided to become a teacher.
“This is what I chose, and I’ve loved it every day since,” she said.
“My most fantastic part of every day is the kids – when they come in and they’re excited, and they’re happy, and ‘What are we going to do today?’” she said. “Just hearing their stories about their life, that’s what I love most.”