From struggling student to superstar: Meet Idaho’s Teacher of the Year


Before she became an honors college student and was named 2013 Idaho Teacher of the Year, Katie Pemberton struggled mightily in the classroom.

Pemberton, a math teacher at Coeur d’Alene School District’s Canfield Middle School, grew up in Spokane, Wash.

In the first and second grades, Pemberton wasn’t able to keep up with her peers in reading.

“I remember being pulled out for special reading programs,” Pemberton said.

She received special attention from her teacher.

Her family members encouraged her progress.

And she devoted extra time to reading and schoolwork.

About that time, Pemberton began to dream about leading her own classroom full of students, helping others the way her teachers helped her.

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Idaho Teacher of the Year Katie Pemberton

“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to teach,” Pemberton wrote in her Teacher of the Year application. “Some of my earliest childhood memories are of playing school with my brothers and cousins.”

When it came to overcoming her difficulty in reading, Pemberton’s extra effort and attention from her teachers and parents worked. Pemberton graduated magna cum laude from Eastern Washington University and posted a 4.0 GPA while earning her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Idaho.

Pemberton’s experience as a struggling student helped her become a better teacher. She teaches enrichment math, basic pre-algebra and pre-algebra, and she works with several remedial and struggling students.

“That experience of being a remedial student at that age … I think that’s given me a new a perspective on what it’s like to be a struggling learner,” Pemberton said. “I am able to have some empathy and understanding as I work with kids who really struggle with math.”

Pemberton has taught at Canfield for seven years, and honors and accolades are nothing new.

In 2008, she was named teacher rookie of the year in the Coeur d’Alene School District. The following year, she became the district’s middle school teacher of the year. Then, in 2011, she won the nationwide Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

Canfield principal Nick Lilyquist, who has worked with Pemberton for five years, said he was not surprised in December when an 11-member judging committee made up of education leaders, lawmakers and parents named Pemberton Teacher of the Year.

Pemberton is on her school and district leadership teams.

She coaches track.

She’s a member of Gov. Butch Otter’s education reform task force.

And she’s written her own grants to secure funding for iPads, laptops for her students, InterWrite technology and clickers.

“If you could clone somebody to be a master teacher, it would Katie,” Lilyquist said. “I say that because she’s got a super infectious positive attitude.”

Across the district, Pemberton is regarded as the most successful at integrating technology. Teachers practically wrestle with each other for the chance to monitor her classroom during one of the district’s four peer-observation periods, Lilyquist said.

“For somebody who has only been doing it for seven years, she’s got it figured out,” he said.

On Thursday, Pemberton testified in the House Education Committee and was recognized during a reception with state officials and lawmakers.

Pemberton wasn’t pushing specific legislation, but she did share a few suggestions with lawmakers.

Lawmakers should look at her district, where classes start later on Mondays to allow teachers and staff two hours to collaborate, share effective techniques and build lesson plans.

She also called for professional development relating to technology, so teachers can better understand what is out there and what may be the most effective tools for their classrooms.

Pemberton also is concerned about class size, saying she has 30 to 35 students enrolled in her math classes.

“I have colleagues who have 40 students (in one class),” Pemberton said. “That’s really a major concern of mine. I like keeping class sizes small so I have time to work in small groups and work one-on-one.”

Pemberton said she supports a blended teaching model that fuses individual personal contact and the use of technology.

“Within the profession, great teachers make learning possible and technology is just a tool,” Pemberton said. “However, technology has leveled the playing field.”