Sometimes in life we come across people who radiate passion. The ones you could sit and listen to for hours, just because they’re so excited about what they do. The ones who respond with, “How much time do we have?” when you ask about their favorite part of their job. When Kirk Tapley walks into a room, you know he’s one of them. He’s a dancer, a Gator, and a John Cena fan. But he was born to teach.
And as soon as you meet him, you understand why the sixth- grade advanced world history teacher from Howard Bishop Middle School was named Alachua County’s 2020 Teacher of the Year.
In the fall of 2006, Kirk Tapley was an eighth-grader at Howard Bishop who was “prematurely” trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life. Luckily for him, he said, it all became clear when he walked into history class.
“From the moment I first crossed the threshold of the doorway, thrusting me into an environment that combined both love and academic rigor, I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “The feeling that Dr. Morris injected into my life on a daily basis in his class was something that I knew I needed to do for others.”
After graduating from the University of Florida with his Masters in Secondary Social Studies Education in 2016, Tapley searched for a teaching position in Alachua County, with the intention of giving back to the school district that had shaped the person he had come to be.
The search went well, and he was offered jobs at two Alachua schools: Howard Bishop Middle School and Eastside High School.
“I chose Howard Bishop for two reasons,” Tapley said. “First, as a fresh faced 23-year-old, I knew that my confidence to get students to buy into what I was saying would be way higher with 11- and 12-year-olds, than it would be with students who were 17 and 18. Secondly, I never went to Eastside, but I did go to Bishop. It was that sense of loyalty, and the opportunity to teach in a program that did a lot for laying the foundation of who I am as a person, that was the majority factor in why I chose HBMS over EHS.”
Less than four years later, Tapley has made a difference in hundreds of students’ lives, in and outside of the classroom. His secret? Relationships. “I think the student-teacher relationship is the number one growth-factor when it comes to a student’s learning experience,” he said. “In life in general, but especially with teenagers, ‘people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ Once you get a student to trust you, your job as a teacher gets easier to do. You still have to work as hard as you already have, but one potential barrier has been knocked down.”
When students arrive to class, they pass by Tapley’s motto “Chase Your Greatness” painted in bold blue letters on the wall outside his door. Inside the classroom, they’re engaged through interactive lessons—such as mummifying a John Cena cutout or rapping Tapley’s original lyrics about Ancient India.
However, he teaches more than world history to the students who come through his classroom. On Life Skill Fridays, students learn valuable real-world skills, such as balancing a checkbook or changing engine oil. And on Mondays, they go over Mr. Tapley’s Life Tips, which includes basic manners, life lesson s and best practices.
Outside the classroom, he stops students in the hall to make sure they’re having a good day and attends his students’ extracurricular activities to show them that he truly cares.
“I hope [my classroom] is a place where they learn organization and time management, and I hope that the routines set in place carry over to their lives outside the classroom,” Tapley said. “I hope it’s a place where they hear my voice telling them to ‘Chase Your Greatness,’ or that they ‘did not show up to just participate, but to completely dominate,’ and that they truly believe that they can accomplish anything through hard work and perseverance.
I hope it’s a place where the uncertainty of when my unexpected antics could happen next keeps them engaged for the entire period. I hope it’s a place where me lip-syncing to whatever song is playing over my speakers is a welcomed sight as they enter the classroom and where they are secretly hoping that their table is the one I climb onto to deliver my instruction. Most of all, though, I hope it’s a place where they know they are cared for and loved; a place where they know that they are not just my student for one year, but for life.”
Kirk Tapley is now in the running for 2021 Florida Department of Education Teacher of the Year, which will be announced this July. Regardless of the outcome, he said that he feels grateful for the opportunities and acknowledgement that he’s been given. “Throughout the whole process, from being nominated as my school representative in October, all the way to winning the overall award in January, the overwhelming feeling that filled my soul was gratitude,” Tapley said. “Grateful to be raised in a school system that I now get to work in myself; a school system that contained teachers that poured time and love into me, something I try to replicate with my own students. Grateful to have two parents that lead by example and taught my brother and myself what true hard work and humility looks like.”