As Kathryn Fitzpatrick teaches her Sparks seventh- and eighth-grade students life and physical science, her enthusiasm captures their attention and brings the subjects to life. This passion, driven by a life-long love for science, was one of the reasons the 33-year-old teacher at Dilworth STEM Academy won the 2016 Washoe County School District’s Middle School Teacher of the Year Award.
Laura Petersen, principal at Dilworth STEM Academy, along with assistant principal Teresa Quintana, nominated Fitzpatrick because of her exemplary leadership and the impact that she has made on the students and staff at the school.
“This is my 23rd year working in the school district,” Petersen said. “This my 15th year as an administrator and Kati is certainly in the top 1 percent of teachers that I have worked with.”
Quintana said: “She’s not searching out accolades. She’s not looking for anybody to recognize her. It was Mrs. Peterson and I that said that she needs to be recognized for all the hard work she’s doing, and thankfully the committee agreed that she did need to be recognized. She is an amazing person.”
Fitzpatrick comes from a long line of educators and knew that she wanted to follow in her family’s footsteps. She received her bachelor’s degree in biology from California State University, Fullerton and her master’s degree in education from Sierra Nevada College. After graduation, she taught at Procter Hug High School and Galena High School, before joining Dilworth STEM Academy in 2013.
Since joining the Sparks middle school, Fitzpatrick has taken on an active role by serving on the leadership committee and as the science department leader. She is also credited for significantly increasing science scores among her students and encouraging professional growth among the staff.
“Her work is helping to highlight the work that the entire staff here is doing,” said Petersen. “Her work is critical to the movement that the whole school is making in regards to becoming a highly regarded STEM academy.”
In addition to her leadership roles, she has become a role model and mentor to new and student teachers entering the field. Last year, Fitzpatrick was instrumental in the mentoring and hiring of two Dilworth teachers whose success has been attributed to her teaching process.
To engage her students, Fitzpatrick uses multiple strategies, including collaborating with colleagues and local education partners, such as the University of Nevada, Reno, Desert Research Institute and local non-profit Envirolution, to create literal connections between what the students learn in the classroom and how it can be applied to real-world situations.
These opportunities help her students understand that if they work hard, they can make a difference in the future and reach their dreams.
“I’d like my students to remember that working hard is important, and that if they put their heart in to something, that they can accomplish anything,” Fitzpatrick said.
Another way that Fitzpatrick makes a difference in her students’ lives is by connecting to them on a personal level, taking an active interest in their lives and creating a safe environment.
“It comes down to just really knowing your kids individually and getting that personal connection with them,” Fitzpatrick said. “Making time for each and every one of your students… getting to know their interests, getting to know them personally. I think that that helps engage kids and makes them want to come to school. It makes them feel safe.”
Many of her students have had to overcome challenges in their daily lives to become successful, which has motivated Fitzpatrick to continue to try to make a difference and to be the best teacher she can be.
“To just see them be so successful is what keeps you inspired,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s what keeps you in teaching, and believing that you can make a difference and that you can make one kid’s life better.”
The connection that Fitzpatrick has with her students is apparent and a quality that makes her stand out.
“They all feel like they’re her favorite, and that’s a really hard thing for a teacher to do, but she does it quite masterfully,” Principal Petersen said.
Fitzpatrick said she is honored to win the award, especially because many teachers go unrecognized for their accomplishments and the effect they have on students and their schools.
“I am so grateful for this opportunity to represent my school in a positive way,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s so exciting for me to be recognized for the hard work that I do, and for people to see the impact that our kids are making and that our school is making on our community.”