Alum is a Finalist for National Teacher of the Year
Recently named Connecticut Teacher of the Year, Carolyn Kielma ’02 M.S. says teaching is the career she was “born to do.” She is now one of five finalists for the nation’s top honor for public school educators.
February 7, 2023
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
Carolyn Kielma ’02 M.S. always knew she wanted to pursue a career in education. When her older sister went to college to become an educator, Kielma was further inspired to pursue her own path in the field.
When she was herself a college student at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, Kielma began to envision her own career as an educator. She changed her major from elementary education to biology, and she hoped to become a science teacher and work with adolescents.
Even then, Kielma knew she had found her calling. As an educator, she has excelled in the classroom, making an impact on the lives of countless students in her 20 years as an educator. A teacher at Bristol Eastern High School in Bristol, Conn., Kielma’s work as an educator has also gained state and national attention. Recently named Connecticut Teacher of the Year, she is now one of five finalists for National Teacher of the Year.
“I was overwhelmed with gratitude,” said Kielma, who earned a master’s degree in education from the University of New Haven. “I am so thankful to be able to bring this honor to my students, my district, and my state. I am the first from my city to receive the state honor, so to move forward as a national finalist is just incredible. I am excited, nervous, and anxious!”
‘My heart is in it’
Passionate about teaching STEM courses, Kielma is teaching sophomore biology and a biotechnology & forensics elective course for juniors and seniors this academic year. She also serves as the advancement via individual determination (AVID) coordinator at her school, and she has taught the AVID elective course. AVID’s mission is to close the achievement gap by preparing students for college readiness and success, a mission Kielma believes in. She has brought her AVID students, many of whom are soon-to-be first-generation college students, to tour the University of New Haven. They visited as recently as last fall.
Kielma attributes her own success in the classroom to her love of teaching. Her approach reflects her belief that learning isn’t about knowing the correct answer; rather, it is about the process of discovery. She says that even if a student doesn’t, say, remember the details of the Calvin Cycle of photosynthesis, she hopes they remember how she fostered discovery and curiosity while challenging them and creating a sense of belonging and acceptance in the classroom. She, ultimately, hopes to instill in them a love of learning.
“My heart is in it,” she said. “I am emotionally connected to each student, and I want nothing more than to see them succeed and have pride in their work. If they choose a path other than one in the sciences, I simply hope to instill in them the idea that they can accomplish something difficult if they have determination, ambition, and drive.”
'I learned more…than I ever thought possible'
When Kielma was herself a student studying education at the University of New Haven, she interned during the day at New Britain High School and attended classes at night. She says the graduate program was “vital” as she prepared for her career as an educator.
It was one of Kielma’s own educators at the University, Prof. Sherry Mitchell, who she credits with helping her begin her career. Prof. Mitchell was a mentor who Kielma says she “knew she wanted to emulate.” Prof. Mitchell recognized Kielma’s potential, connecting her with a long-term substitute teaching position at Bailey Middle School (BMS) in West Haven.
The school principal soon saw Kielma’s potential as well. Toward the end of Kielma’s substitute-teaching assignment, the principal told her he’d set up an interview for her. It was already planned for later that very day, and Kielma didn’t believe she was ready to interview for a teaching position as she had not yet completed her student teaching. But the principal thought differently, and Kielma was hired to teach science at West Haven High School within a week. She would go on to teach there for five years before transitioning to Bristol Eastern High School.
“I learned more from my professors at the University in that short time than I ever thought possible,” said Kielma. “The most influential professor I ever had in all of my collegiate coursework was Sherry Mitchell. She was incredibly knowledgeable and inspiring. I am still in touch with her via social media, and I still hear from many of those 6th and 7th graders I first taught at BMS.”
‘The career I was born to do’
As an award-winning educator, Kielma continues to be curious and eager to continue her own learning. She continues to enhance her teaching, and she strives to learn as much as she can from her fellow educators. She says she has been adapting her own teaching over the past two decades to incorporate new technologies, practices, and tips, and she continues to learn from her fellow educators as much as she inspires them.
“I believe teaching is not about one person, and I would not be the teacher I am today without all those who raised me as an educator,” she explains. “The only reason I could be deemed an outstanding teacher is because I am committed to absorbing the information and ideas of others and integrating it into my practice. I am still hungry to learn more and will never stop seeking to redesign the way I teach to be the best teacher I can be for my students and the community.”
Kielma is one of five finalists from across the country for the National Teacher of the Year Award, and the recipient will be chosen this spring. As Connecticut Teacher of the Year, she serves as a teacher-ambassador for public education. She and her sister who inspired her are both dedicated educators in the state (Kielma’s sister is the agriculture science and technology director for Middletown High School), and Kielma is committed to continuing to serve her profession and the students in her classroom.
“This was the career I was born to do,” she said. “I love to be able to help young people realize their worth, discover their strengths and weaknesses, and become better humans. What is most meaningful to me is the connections I am able to make with my students that reach far beyond the classroom walls. I get to help make better humans who can contribute in a positive way to our society. I get to see them grow and develop throughout their high school career and long after.”