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Teaching is a marathon for this D.C. educator. It’s her students who cross the finish line.

Kelly Harper, a third-grade teacher at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School, is one of four finalists in the National Teacher of the Year contest.
Kelly Harper, a third-grade teacher at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School, is one of four finalists in the National Teacher of the Year contest. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

A day for Kelly Harper runs roughly 13,000 steps — back and forth, back and forth around her classroom. That’s about six miles for the 29-year-old teacher. The large pink jug of water she keeps at her desk is crucial for the marathon-plus she completes each week.

There are the few steps she takes to make eye contact with a distracted student, flashing a quick smile to bring him back in. There are countless steps as she weaves through the classroom, checking how each of her 20 third-graders are faring on the word problems they are completing in groups. And then there are the small steps — dancing feet, even — that burst out when Harper is excited about a student’s response.

“Oookay!” she exclaims as she looks over a student’s work. “We’ve come so far, friends. I’m so proud.”

Each minute, each step in Harper’s classroom is meticulously planned. An 8-year-old, the thinking goes, has an attention span of about eight minutes. So she keeps the lessons and conversations moving. And, yes, that means she’s moving, too.

Harper, a third-grade teacher at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Southwest Washington, was named the city’s teacher of the year and is one of four finalists in the national competition. No D.C. teacher has won the national honor since 2005. This month, she also won The Washington Post’s annual education competition, claiming the title of Teacher of the Year in the Washington region.

“When I got the call about being a national finalist, I was like, ‘Wow, are you joking?’ ” said Harper, whose D.C. school serves a body of students who are mostly black and from low-income households. “But it’s exciting, being able to share so many of my students’ amazing stories and to have a voice in the national landscape.”

Harper, a native of Silver Spring, never intended to be a teacher. An aspiring lawyer who grew up crafting pretend attorney-at-law business cards, she saw a broken criminal justice system and thought she could fix it from the inside. But after completing a few legal internships while attending Atlanta’s Spelman College, she decided the best way to help was to reach children before they became entangled in the justice system.

She graduated from college in 2012 and joined the nonprofit Teach for America program in Houston. Two years later, she returned home to teach for D.C. Public Schools — the same school system from which her father graduated. He dropped out of high school, she said, but teachers pulled him back in.

He graduated from college and became a business owner. This year, he bought ties for all of the boys in her class and taught the students how to tie them.

“I try to think about that whenever I have challenges,” Harper said. “What if someone had given up on my dad?”

Hanseul Kang, the D.C. state superintendent of education, whose agency selects D.C.’s teacher of the year, said Harper truly believes every child has the potential to learn at high levels — and pushes them to reach those heights.

“She has really built a strong community within her classroom,” Kang said. “And she really brings the community into her students’ lives.”

Harper’s goal is to build a classroom full of independent 8-year-olds who know their capabilities and can push their classmates with them.

Students start exercises with words of affirmation, emphasizing why they go to school and work hard each day.

“I am a problem solver and an innovator,” the class chants before their math lesson. “I am the future of math!”

If her goal is to foster a classroom of enthusiastic learners, Harper sets an admirable example. She cannot help but snap her fingers and dance as her students sing their multiplication tables. She squeals with excitement when students have a breakthrough in their work.

“Y’all, I’m so excited,” she says.

Harper said she tries to instill leadership skills in her students, and by the end of the academic year, she can step back and let her students help each other.

When working in small groups, a young girl asks her classmate how she solved a division word problem. She explains her methods.

“Good job, Amber!” the girl replies.

“Yes, I like that you affirmed her,” Harper says.

Harper introduces her students to the community beyond their neighborhoods, too. This year, the students visited the U.S. Capitol and met with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). They testified before the D.C. Council, calling on the government to invest more in classroom technology. On weekends, she has organized with other teachers to take students to museums, and each year, she takes her class to Howard University.

“It’s beautiful to watch kids who have never stepped foot on a college campus — or even know anyone who went to college — to see people there on campus from similar backgrounds as them,” Harper said.

Third-grader Ronald Crawford said Harper is different from any teacher he has had. She doesn’t just want students to get the right answers, he said, she wants them to understand the concepts that led them to the answers.

“When we get a question wrong, she actually builds on that until we get it right,” Ronald said. “She doesn’t just erase it.”

Harper said she has no plans to leave the classroom just yet. She wants to hone her craft, continue learning from other teachers and keep improving. Eventually — maybe in two decades — she wants to affect even more students as the nation’s education secretary.

Before that, though, her focus is trained on the students she teaches each day.

“I want my students to know that I see them,” she said. “The more they know you care, the more likely they are to be engaged.”

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