What Kansas legislators could learn from Winfield’s National Teacher of the Year

Tabatha Rosproy, of Winfield, was named 2020 National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers. (Kaydee Riggs Johnson)

Tabatha Rosproy was making Kansas proud.

It was May 21. On “CBS This Morning,” an adorable segment announced that Rosproy, 33, had been named the National Teacher of the Year.

Rosproy teaches preschool in a Winfied retirement community and nursing home. On a split screen, she watched for nearly seven minutes as 4-year-olds and elderly nursing home residents made it obvious how well she does her job.

One kid, asked to name her favorite activity in Rosproy’s classroom, thought before concluding, “That’s a good question.”

An old man with a gravelly voice lauded “all of the aspects of learning that she has shown: equality, love, respect.”

What’s so beautiful about Rosproy’s program at Cumbernauld Village is how it affirms the broadest definition of family. The preschoolers call the residents who are their volunteer teachers “grandmas and grandpas.”

For those elders, Rosproy told me, “It really provides purpose and meaning in their lives in retirement, in their time where they thought what they were contributing was over — those are their words, that’s what they say to me. Now, every day when they wake up, they get to spend time with children. They read together, discover, go fishing, play bingo, stomp in puddles — anything we can get them involved in.”

It works both ways. Grandmas and grandpas invite the kids to their evening activities around the nursing home and to special performances by outside groups, like when people from the zoo come to visit.

2020 Teacher of the Year Tabatha Rosproy with her students and their “grandmas” at the Cumbernauld Village retirement communith. (Suzanne Lawrence)

This interaction, Rosproy said, helps her young students grow socially, emotionally and academically.

Thanks to individual attention like one-on-one reading time with the grandmas and grandpas, she notes, the kids “have grown to be so much more empathetic” than what she’s observed in other preschool students.

“They can relate to people who are different from them,” she said. “It’s really incredible.”

It’s tempting to make a joke, here, about members of the Kansas Legislature needing the kind of education Rosproy’s preschoolers get. But there’s nothing funny about what some senators and representatives were doing at the Capitol on the same day as Rosproy was on national television making Kansas proud.

On May 21, the last day of this year’s session, legislators accomplished little. Most notably, considering the ongoing public health disaster that followed, they failed to expand Medicaid even after Gov. Laura Kelly worked out a compromise with Republican Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning. The loudest politicians spent 24 hours in a display of partisan poop-flinging. To call them whiny babies would be an insult to whiny babies.

Rosproy’s experience of Kansas is a striking contrast to what we often see in the Statehouse. People in Cowley County invested in the greater good, funding early childhood education for every kid.

“Any 4-year-old goes to school for free,” Rosproy said.

Rosproy graduated from Winfield’s Southwestern College in 2009 and taught in a Head Start program in Salina before coming back to the Winfield Early Learning Center in 2014. Now she’s working on her master’s in education from Fort Hays State University.

She’s watched over the past decade as Kansas failed to fully fund its public schools. The state is now in the early phases of a court-approved school funding plan.

“Even with an education-friendly governor in office,” Rosproy said, “it’s still a battle getting the support we need.”

Lawmakers could fund universal preschool across the state, she suggested, but “there’s always this tit-for-tat sort of thing: ‘This is our money — what are we getting if we put it into this.’ I don’t think there’s anything you can invest in and get a better return than the education of a child.”

These days she’s fielding lots of questions about re-opening schools. She wouldn’t have been back at Cumbernauld Village for the next year anyway because of her National Teacher of the Year duties, but her pre-school kids will be learning separately from the old folks until it’s safe for everyone to be back together.

“When the state Board of Education says to make those decisions based on what’s happening in local communities,” she noted, “they forget in that the numbers in rural Kansas are so low because we’re spread out.” But school is a mass gathering. If people aren’t spread out, the numbers won’t stay low.

Rosproy has a national platform now. She doesn’t use it to tell people who to vote for. Instead, she says, “I think we need to look at what is good for everybody — not just what is best for me and mine, but how we can help everyone in our communities.”

Some Kansas politicians would call that socialism. I’d call it being the adult in the room.