Spotlight Teacher: Joy Kirr

Congrats to Joy Kirr, our April Teacher Spotlight honoree!

Joy has been an outstanding member of the community, and we wanted you to have a chance to know more about Joy, her work, her worries, and her passion.

Here’s a look at an interview we did with Joy – and a question we have for you all to jump in on:


Was there a recognizable moment when you decided that you wanted to become a teacher?

Yes. When it was time for me to go to college, I wanted to train dogs for people who were deaf. My mom said that I should teach kids who were deaf instead. I learned sign language in high school. For college, my mom said that I could either go away and not have a car, or stay local and have some transportation, so I ended up staying local. What they had at Northern [Illinois University] was a program for teaching students who are deaf and hearing-impaired. I taught a multi-handicapped deaf group of students. We had to go twice a week to a middle school class, and I got a lot of different kids in there. I knew I wanted to be a teacher after my first clinical. I think my mom knew more than I knew!

If someone walked into your classroom tomorrow morning, what would they see, hear, and feel?

They would hear book talks from students. They share books that they read every quarter. We also started reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, so they’ll help each other by asking questions and figuring out answers together. This is a unit where I don’t give them answers.

Is that something you do often? Having units and projects where you don’t give answers?

Yes, but not for whole units. For this book, we just go right back into the text for answers to questions they have. I try to do that often so they’re in charge of their learning. What do I know about Frederick Douglass other than what I’ve read with them?
Actually, Dave Meyers from TeachersConnect came to Illinois in the Fall of 2011. He was doing literacy professional development work at that point. He asked someone in the district to pilot an iPad program for four weeks. I said “sure,” but I wanted all of my kids to have iPads, not just one class, and he gave that to me. I learned so much from the lessons, and this Frederick Douglass content came from that unit. That was my opening of “I didn’t need to give answers, they can find the answers.”

What is one thing you wish you knew on your first day of teaching?

Don’t worry about the curriculum or grading. Focus on the kids. If you don’t have that relationship with the kids, then it’s harder for them to learn from you.

What is one of your favorite memories as a teacher?

I have a student this year who has a brother who took his life last April. My favorite memories from this year are when he confides in me, gives me great eye contact, and he trusts me to be on his side and try to understand what he’s going through. That’s what keeps me going every morning. It’s sad, but he’s my rock this year. He’s the reason I’m there. I know I won’t understand it; I just try to be there for him.

What is the hardest thing you’ve had to do as a teacher?

The hardest thing is trying new things on my own. I’m the one [my district] thought of for piloting the iPad program. Later, I added Genius Hour and said I’m not going to give grades. I have to try new things first, and hopefully, other people follow.

You have a blog, right? How did you get into blogging?

I think it was when I started the iPad program. I then went to Michigan and I learned from Ewan McIntosh. He said, “What’s a problem in your school and how would you fix it?” My kids weren’t reading, and I wanted them to read. So we gave them time to read. This was 6 years ago when they didn’t have the time to read in classes, and so I decided to write about it. I kept it as a draft, and he told me to share my thinking. So I got on Twitter, saw what other people were writing, and decided to make it into a blog. People started looking at it and started asking questions. I think it’s important to share our stories so we can learn and grow.


Joy, we thank you for sharing your thoughts and stories with all of us. For everyone else: What are your thoughts on trying new things on your own? Especially when you’re a part of a school system? How would you make it work, measure your success, and get everyone to try it with you? Join the community to respond with your thoughts and advice.

You can read more from Joy on her blog at or check out her book Shift This (