The Laurel County School District had a year of "firsts" during the 2018-2019 academic year and preschool teacher Jennifer Riley was one of the history making units of that success.
Riley, a preschool teacher at Hazel Green Elementary, was chosen as the Kentucky Governor's Office of Early Childhood Education 2019 Teacher of the Year.
For Riley, the honor was tremendous and she was appreciative that the preschool component of the public education system was recognized for the first time ever.
"This is the first time that they've given such an award," she said. "The preschool program is one that lays the basis for student learning and I'm glad the Governor's Office recognized that."
In fact, Riley is the first recipient of that award and was honored at the Galt House in Louisville on June 20 during the Early Childhood Education Institute.
"Teachers are nominated by parents and peers and the parent of the girl who nominated me was at the awards program," she said. "It was very sweet and humbling to be recognized. I was very surprised."
That recognition was bestowed during a three-day conference although Riley said she had planned to attend the sessions even before she was notified of her award. But she was especially honored that the nominating parent and her three sons attended the awards ceremony.
"The keynote speaker was Mark Kennedy-Shriver and he spoke about his own life and challenges," she said. "But it was really special when the Commissioner of Education came up to me and said, 'We need more teachers like you who understand what kids go through.' Then he told me he would be coming to Hazel Green in October."
For Riley, the honor is one that she will cherish. A native of Chicago, Riley was the youngest of 11 children. The family moved to southern Laurel County when Riley was just 9 years old. She attended Keavy Elementary and South Laurel Middle and High School before going to Eastern Kentucky University to earn her bachelor's degree.
"I earned my bachelor's in special education in interdisciplinary early childhood education and my master's in school guidance from the University of the Cumberlands," she explained.
She secured a job in the Laurel County School District as a preschool assistant teacher at Sublimity Elementary. It was during that time she realized how much she loved teaching that age group - and how much more teachers made than assistant teachers. That realization inspired her to go back to college, doing some tutoring while she was finishing her college degree.
"I also subbed (substitute teacher) at East Bernstadt for two years, but since then I've been in the Laurel County system," she explained.
Her interest and dedication to education is apparent in her own family - an area for which she is especially proud.
"My mom only had an eighth grade education. My mom and dad had 47 grandchildren and only one has graduated college," she said, noting that is her son, Hunter, so far.
Riley realized the impact that a teacher can have on a student, crediting one of her own teachers for instilling the ambition and drive she needed to achieve.
Seven of the girls in Riley's family had babies in their teens, she said.
Her dad moved her and her other sister, who was also still living at home, to Knox County when Riley was 8. Another sister had married someone from Knox County.
Her dad had come to the United States from Puerto Rico and he taught himself English by going to Wrigley Field and translating what the announcer said. He worked as a chef for the Cook County prison.
He decided to move to Knox County after he retired at age 62. That change paid off for the family and Riley said one of her high school business teachers, Sylvia Baker, was instrumental in changing her outlook on life.
"She always encouraged me and told me, 'You absolutely can'," Riley said, which told Riley she was bigger than her circumstances.
Riley took that message to heart and puts the family first in her role as a preschool teacher.
"You have to service the family to service the student," she said. "If I can lift families up and say or do something to help them, it is better for everyone. To support the child, especially the preschool age, you have to support the family."
Putting forth extra effort is nothing new to Riley. Although she was a stay-at-home mom until all three of her sons were in school, she quickly changed that scenario once she began working for the school system. Then she juggled the duties of a working mother with being a college student. But she never forgot what Baker had told her during her own high school years and she passes that way of thinking to her family and her students.
She cannot hide the fact that she loves her job as a preschool teacher and loves the open mindedness of the young children. Riley knows that her actions could well be the determining factor in the future of those children placed in her care.
"I think every preschool teacher should be recognized," she said.
Riley is married to Roy Riley and the couple have three sons - Hayden, Hunter and Ty.
*corrections have been made to this story.