There’re a few things Kim Stock’s students can expect from her: a corny TikTok video or two in her Insta stories, a good Broadway musical reference, and a carefully curated space that breeds inclusivity.
Stock’s virtual classroom banner reads “Welcome!” and sits atop a string of hearts in every shade of human, plus a rainbow pride heart and a pink and blue heart for gender fluidity.
“I’m still working on that one, being mindful of my pronouns and how I address a group,” Stock says. “A few years ago, I would have said, ‘Ladies and gentleman.’ Now I say ‘students.’ I’m 46, so it’s a lot to learn. But these kids? They are so powerful. They are so aware. It’s the adults who mess everything up.”
Listen closely and you might hear Stock, the McKean English and English-learner teacher, still screaming in the wake of her Delaware Teacher of the Year Award for 2021.
“I just can’t stop,” she says. “I still don’t believe it. Being awarded this is one thing, but it came at a time when life for my colleagues and myself, and teachers nationwide, is just so challenging, so it feels even better.”
With the award comes two grants equal to $10,000. While she hasn’t decided exactly what she’ll do with it, she’s decided to focus on bringing a memory to her students over investing in things.
“I think that’s more important,” she says. “It’s probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned as a mom.”
Stock’s glow-up is so luminous, her joy for life so palpable you can all but feel it, even through a screen. It’s striking to reconcile her difficult personal narrative with her easy, worn-in laugh.
She doesn’t shy from speaking to the challenges she’s faced, mostly because one of her students might find light in her darkness.
Abandoned as a child in South Korea, Stock can’t be sure of her birthday, age or even her name at birth.
“It’s a kind of hurt that lasts,” she says, but not one that defines her.
A couple from Nebraska eventually adopted Stock, so she moved to the Midwest, which was not exactly a beacon of Korean culture.
“Growing up with a white family and not being white … there was a lot of racism,” Stock says. “I don’t know if people were trying to be mean, but I was teased. It was really traumatic. Of course, my family did everything they could for me.”
Grappling with her identity created a crisis at a pivotal time.
“When I was younger, very desperately, I wanted to be white,” she says. “I wanted to have blonde hair and blue eyes and look like the rest of my family.”
She wanted it so badly that she believed it to be true.
“I referenced myself as being ‘white’ to a friend in high school, and she laughed and turned to me and said, ‘Oh my god, you think you’re white, don’t you?” she says. “That moment woke me up to the fact that, no. I was not white. It inspired me to want to reconnect with my heritage.”
She did so by befriending other people of color, and dipping a toe into her culture at a local Korean church in Nebraska.
“I so clearly remember sitting in the car, terrified to go in, and wondering, ‘What does this say about me that I’m afraid to walk into a church filled with other Korean people?’’ she says. “But the longing is double-sided, because when I visit Korea, that’s a whole other chapter of, ‘Oh, wow, I’m different here, too.’”
The face of racism she saw as a child manifested itself monstrously in 2001, when her then-husband, Jung, was murdered outside a Korean restaurant in what homicide detectives suspected was a racially motivated crime. The case was never solved.
It’s a lot to carry. But she does so with grace—her students are watching.
Called to education at the prodding of a favorite teacher, Stock never looked back. “[This teacher] introduced me to Maya Angelou, and, at the time, you had to go all the way to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln to find out a single thing about her—this was well before President Clinton had her at his inauguration,” she says. “I was so moved by her work.”
That lack of access to a non-white voice stuck with Stock, whose platform as the state’s Teacher of the Year is twofold.
“I’m advocating for equity for English-learner students and teachers,” she says. “The funding for English-learner students is not at a place where it is equitable, and that causes our jobs as teachers to be that much more difficult.”
She’ll also promote anti-bias, anti-racist education.
“Some would call that creating schools that are more culturally proficient, but really, it just boils down to a curriculum, a school building, that reflects its students.”
To build that, some hard questions have to be asked: “Why is the suspension rate for our black male students so disproportionate to our student population?” she says. “That calls for some honesty and dialogue.”
Stock points to the anonymous Instagram posts that circulated a few months ago about the experience of students of color at various local schools.
“Every adult should have been reading those IG stories, because it’s from these students’ own personal perspective,” she says. “And the reality is, when you’re dealing with kids, their perspective is all that matters.”
Fresh off her first few days back in school with her students, Stock is hopeful.
“I am really proud of my school for working so hard to make a plan that seemed to work pretty well the past couple of days,” she says. “The students were wonderful. It was great to feel like a school again.”
She stresses her own quarantine mantra to her students—“Be kind, have grace for ourselves and others”—and she keeps it real.
“I kept telling students that we were all learning together,” she says. “But I am concerned about how to best teach in person and on Zoom at the same time, and concerned about all that is being asked of teachers now. Unfortunately, there are no models for us to learn this skill.”
Stock recently completed her application for the national Teacher of the Year Award, which should announce a winner in February. But she doesn’t need a national platform to promote her inclusive approach to education—het students will tell you she’s already doing it.
Probably because she lives it.
“I lovingly refer to my parents as the most Midwestern Nebraska people you will ever meet,” she says, laughing. “And they have white grandchildren, Black grandchildren, Korean grandchildren. That, to me, is America.”