Louisiana's teacher of the year never planned on a career in the classroom.
"I wanted to be a social worker," said Kimberly Eckert, a 9th grade English teacher at Brusly High School.
"I really wanted to focus on empowering people, helping them," she said. "Being a teacher just wasn't on my radar."
But after spending time working for the nonprofit group Best Buddies, interacting with intellectually disabled children in schools, all that changed.
Eckert returned to school, found her calling in education and, on July 28, was announced as 2018 Teacher of the Year by the state Department of Education.
Early on she knew she had lots to learn about being a teacher.
"I was a fish out of water," she said. "What I did have is a lot of passion."
That word – passion – is what friends and colleagues use over and over in describing what sets Eckert apart.
Passion to switch careers when, she said, "nothing felt like it should feel" in other jobs.
Passion to show up at Port Allen Middle School just before classes started to ask if they had a special ed opening.
And passion to ask Brusly High Principal Walter Lemoine if she could return to the classroom – sort of a backwards step in education circles – after time in an administrative job that teachers often cherish.
"She did that for one year and she said 'I miss the kids,'" Lemoine recalled.
"She is the epitome of a teacher," he added. "Just full of enthusiasm, passion, always wanting to get better. Never has a bad day."
"I think her pure motivation to really want to help the kids is what makes her special," Lemoine said.
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That comes through to students, said Cammie Claytor, a friend who teaches 10th, 11th and 12th grade social studies and has a daughter the school.
"The reason everybody loves Kim is because she cares," Claytor recalled her daughter saying.
"She emotionally invests herself on these kids," Cammie Claytor said. "She genuinely wants them to be better,not just smarter."
Julie Mayeux, assistant principal, said Eckert sets a high bar for herself in the classroom daily and exults – "I rocked!" – on a good day.
"Kim has a passion," Mayeux said.
Eckert, 36, is animated, outgoing and high energy.
"I want to help everyone do everything," she said.
Eckert is from Marksville, is married and the mother of a two-year-old daughter unimpressed by all the attention mom is getting.
She graduated from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches with a degree in social work.
Later she earned a master's degree in special education, and eventually her teaching certification in special ed and English.
In nearly 10 years Eckert has also been a reading interventionist, speech teacher, mentor teacher, master teacher and instructional coach.
Eckert's selection last month at the 11th annual Cecil j. Picard Educator Awards marked the culmination of competition that began in November.
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The process included multiple essays, a teaching video and a Skype interview.
Near the end she faced an interview with a 12-member selection committee.
"Pretty intense," she recalled.
Eckert laughed that the big prize – the use of a Mercedes for one year – came just two weeks after she got rid of her 2005 Kia for a 2017 Honda HRV.
"I didn't think I was going to win, and we desperately needed a new car," she said.
Eckert's selection also means Community Coffee for the teacher's lounge for the school year, Blue Bell ice cream for the school and a U.S. flag that flew over the U. S. Capitol.
"It has been a plus for the whole school," Lemoine said.
Eckert still marvels that she was awarded a key to the city.
"I didn't know that was a thing in real life," she said.
Being state Teacher of the Year also means she will have a seat on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which sets policies for about 700,000 public school students statewide.
Davis Strauss, who was special ed supervisor at the high school for 17 years, is the one who hired Eckert.
"Outgoing, positive, very direct, to the point, which is what we want," Strauss said of that initial interview.
He said Eckert excelled at getting parents of special education students to motivate their children.
"She made sure they could see that light at the end of the tunnel, and that the light was visible to the most difficult populations," Strauss said.
BESE Vice President Holly Boffy, a former teacher of the year, said the award has come a long way from the days when it was mostly limited to a congratulatory telephone call.
Years ago a nonprofit group called Dream Teachers teamed with corporate sponsors to elevate the event, including the July gala that Lemoine compared to the Academy Awards.
Boffy recalled one winner who opted not to use her title as a platform.
"It really is what you make of it," she said.
Eckert said she is humbled by the opportunity to serve on BESE, work with previous teachers of the year and make contacts for the community.
"The ability to bring people together, that is pretty amazing," she said.
"And that is not something a teacher would ordinarily be able to do," Eckert said. "That is really cool."