Celebrate the Profession
The last few years have been hard on educators. Sometimes the challenges teachers face on a daily basis are so great that it’s hard to remember the rewards of the profession or the reason why they chose to become public school educators. And for that reason, ISTA wants to recognize the success stories that are seldom told. As the new school year begins, I will share with you some of the best we have in our schools, cafeterias, facilities, playgrounds and on school buses. I hope you’ll follow these stories and see what happens every day in Indiana’s public schools.
—Kathleen Berry Graham
ISTA Assistant Editor
Celebrate the Profession of the Month
Teaches Biology and Zoology
Lafayette Education Association
ISTA Member 14 years
Recent reports show that back in the 1970s 40 percent of the world’s scientists and engineers resided in the United States. Today that number has shrunk to 15 percent. But today those figures don’t feel right. Why? Just for a moment let’s take a peek at the science wing at Lafayette Jefferson High School.
In September I was lucky enough to meet and write about one of Jeff’s award-winning teachers—Joe Ruhl—whose success with science has long inspired students. Just across the hall from Ruhl’s laboratory I’ve now met an equally impressive instructor, Melissa George, who has spent a lifetime enriching the depth of her own scientific knowledge so that she might encourage her students to pursue careers in science and technology.
George has taught science for 18 years—14 of those in the Lafayette area. She says that increasing her own knowledge through professional opportunities helps enrich the lives of Jeff students. And she has gone to unbelievable lengths for professional development.
Look at her short list. She coordinated the student competition in the Indiana Science Academic Super Bowl, took eighth graders to the regional Purdue Scientific Fair for 10 years and served as a liaison for multiple Purdue STEM education outreach projects. Along the way she picked up her Ph.D. in science education.
Reserved about her accomplishments, George says she does it because, “I want to make science happen for any student who is interested regardless of their socioeconomic level.” Oftentimes she has used grant money or her own money to pay for kids who otherwise might not be able to partake.
While her success list is long, George quietly told me about her recent experience as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the National Science Foundation. In July of 2013, she set sail to assist scientists on a 19-day program with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Teacher at Sea program. From the bridge of the Ship Oscar Dyson, she blogged about the weather, sea creatures, sound waves and Alaskan Pollack—fish widely distributed in the North Pacific. George grew up in California and loves being near the ocean and studying its inhabitants. “My students learn best through authentic experiences,” she said. “I hope my NOAA experience offers my biology and zoology students a view of what it’s like to be an ocean scientist.” Hundreds apply to participate in the NOAA science research each year. George was one of only 25 accepted to board the vessel.
“My life-long passion is working with under-served populations. If I can make a difference in helping students see, understand and learn about how to answer some of the questions in science, well, I will help my students make choices.”
There’s no doubt that teachers like George can help create the next generation of students who make our world better and perhaps can reverse the decline in the number of scientists in the U.S. or right here in Indiana.
Drives School Bus for La Porte Community School Corporation
ISTA Member 1 year
Gail Cains drove her morning bus route as usual on Jan 23. By early afternoon as she prepared for her afternoon route the forecast had turned grim. Fog and whiteout snow conditions. “Even before 2 pm everyone at the bus depot was saying it was going to get bad. By 3 pm it was bad,” Cains said. Drivers on the radio claimed that windshield wipers were freezing, windows were fogging, traffic was creeping dangerously slow. “Nothing was working,” Cain remembers. “But not for me. I drive an old bus. And I like my old bus. It just goes.”
Not every driver would welcome being assigned one of the old buses. Especially bus number 13. But when Cains was hired as a permanent driver for the La Porte Community School Corporation more than a year ago, she liked it. “My son’s lucky number is 13 so I was okay with getting that old 13. From day one I named him ‘Lucky.’”
But let’s get back to the story Cains told me about Jan. 23.
She was the first bus headed back to the depot during the snowstorm. Her boss, Terry Busse, radioed and said, “Bus 13? Are you empty?” Cains was empty. Busse asked if she was willing to help with a situation where a warm bus was needed. “And I’m not a person who says ‘no.’”
Minutes later Cains met a police escort and headed the wrong way down Interstate 94 toward a snowstorm highway pileup with a police car on either side of her bus. “At first I couldn’t see much because of the blinding snow, but I will never forget the scene. It looked like a junkyard. It was four miles of wreckage before we got to the real scene of the accident—50 cars and 16 semitrailers.”
For three hours first responders, police and firefighters worked to free people from the wreckage. Many of the injured waited on Lucky. “I needed to get people to the hospital but my bus was headed the wrong direction on the shoulder of the highway. Police officers cleared enough space for me to make a three-point turn and told me not to stop—to get to the hospital.”
Cains says her bus did just that. Conditions were still horrible—more than two feet of snow—but again with police escorts Cains drove against three lanes of traffic with her injured passengers.
She’ll never forget that day. Three people died in the pileup and more than 20 were injured. “It was incredible to see all the emergency workers who came together against terrible conditions to save people’s lives. I was just one of many. Cains received an award from the school corp for her efforts.
Quick to give credit to others, Cains says she was just lucky that she was at the right place at the right time in her old Lucky 13 that day.
Teaches Grades 4-5 Multi-Age Gifted and Talented
ISTA Member 17 years
Jay Vahle’s easy-going, calm mannerisms fooled me. I would never have guessed some of the Wow! moments that decorate his life.
His most recent Wow! moment landed on the last day of school in December when nearly all the staff had departed for the holiday break. Vahle opened an email that said he’d received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
Given annually to 102 outstanding K-12 science and mathematics teachers from across the country, the winners are selected by a panel of scientists, mathematicians and educators. Winners receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation. They also are invited to Washington, DC, for several days of educational and celebratory events, including visits with members of Congress.
Vahle says his mouth dropped open when he read the email. “I sat there staring at the screen. Everyone was already gone for break so I really couldn’t share the honor.” Well, most everyone except the teacher in the classroom next door. And Vahle’s neighbor just happens to be his wife, Janet, who teaches grades 2-3 gifted and talented. He popped in the door and said, “I just got an email from the White House.” Pretty good Wow! moment.
Jay and Janet Vahle’s side-by-side placement in itself is another twinkling moment. Janet had actually applied for a G-T position at Woodbrook Elementary and the principal, who knew Jay and was looking for two G-T educators, agreed to a second interview only if Janet brought her husband back for round two. An unexpected offer. Another surprising moment. He accepted the position and both have been at the Carmel school ever since. Plus they take that proximity thing seriously. They live across the street from school. “It’s great to be so close. Our four kids were just steps away from school when younger.”
Vahle says getting the news that their firstborn was really a pair of twins just an hour before a back-to-school night years ago ranks right up there with those other heart-stopping moments.
Vahle says he is not sure what he will do with the cash award that comes with his most-recent honor, but admits that every day in his classroom is a thrill. “Honestly, teaching is the most rewarding, most fulfilling career possible.”
Teaches Special Ed Grades 3-5 at
ISTA Member 7 year
At this holiday time of year when most kids and even adults have long wish lists of grand items, some lists are much more modest. Tracy Sipes, who teaches in Shelbyville, told me how thrilled her student teacher was the day before my visit. Why? Not only had the student teacher just landed a permanent position at Hendricks Elementary but her wish list for simple things—markers, pencils, erasers, pens—had been filled for free. Where? At a place called the Giving T.R.E.E.—a program started by Sipes.
T.R.E.E. stands for Teaching Resources for Education and Enrichment. Three years ago Sipes bought a pillow and a blanket for a student who needed some help. She also noticed that her kids were hungry and lacked classroom supplies. She bought snacks. She bought supplies. She knew many of her colleagues were doing the same since more than 60 percent of students in her elementary qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. “I just kept thinking about how I could help,” says Sipes. “I wanted to help the students and the teachers—especially beginning teachers who needed to make a good start.” It wasn’t long before the Giving T.R.E.E. sprouted.
Sipes’ partnered with fellow educator Sandy Bostic and volunteer Pam Lemmons and her church—Hope’s Point—that offered space to house a free store for teachers. Baskets of yarn, flash cards, buckets of pens and pencils, bins of staplers and erasers, old games, stacks of magazines and loads of math manipulatives line the floors and shelves of the donated space. Church and community volunteers contribute supplies or funding plus help staff the store a few days each month. “It wouldn’t work without the efforts of many,” Sipes says. “Teachers donate unneeded supplies and retired teachers get to clean closets and others get to stock up.” Plus local Kroger, Hallmark and Starbucks stores ask patrons to fill drop boxes with supplies.
“It’s a gift,” said Stands Rumple, an ISTA member who teaches art at Waldron Junior-Senior High School in Shelbyville and who spied a stack of cardboard rounds for a hat project. “I find something every month and I use it all.”
What’s on Sipes’ wish list? More donations—especially dry erase markers—but cash donations are accepted as well. If your wish list is to clear your shelves this season, donations are welcome at Hope’s Point, 1703 S. Miller Ave., Shelbyville, IN 46176.
Teaches students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities
At RISE Learning Center
Southside Special Services Education Association
ISTA Member 6 years
Not only does Jamie Stahly work full time as a teacher for moderate to severe intellectual disabilities students at RISE Learning Center in Indianapolis, but she runs the school’s food pantry, has a 14-month-old daughter, is expecting a second and is working on her master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis. That daily to-do list might daunt most but she does it all with a twinkle and a hug.
I visited RISE on Halloween morning. Pirates, ghosts, witches and skeletons—both students and staff in costume—paraded to Stahly’s classroom door for a sugar buzz treat. Yet most of her trick-or-treaters seemed more touched by her loving remarks or her costume compliments than the Milky Ways.
Stahly has taught in a Comprehensive Intervention Program classroom for six years with anywhere from four to 12 students ranging from 19-22 years old. Much of her work helps her students with self-help skills—tooth brushing or dressing; vocational skills—learning how to work at Goodwill or Gleaners; food pantry skills—how to stock shelves or shop for food; functional academics—teaching students the specific skills for a specific job. “It might be that Billy needs to know how to count to three for a job at Goodwill so that’s what our goal is. I don’t worry about getting to 10,” Stahly says. “I am trying to get them to transition to day programs or to the next step in their lives.”
“She doesn’t get enough credit,” said a father who stopped by between trick-or-treaters. His son, Ron, who has Down syndrome, has been in Stahly’s class for six years. “It’s unbelievable to see how she gets him to accomplish things. He knows he’s accountable when he’s in her classroom. She’s taught him to help himself and that helps us as parents.”
Stahly’s extraordinary work has been recognized by ISTA as well. In 2012 she was awarded the JD Miller Young Activist Award that recognizes members for accomplishments in the first five years as education employees. Stahly, who is also co-president of her local, shuns the acknowledgement saying that her best reward is the days when she sees a hint of gradual improvement in her beloved students. “They are worlds smarter than we know.”
Teaches Geometry, Algebra, Calculus
Tri Junior Senior High School
South Henry CTA
ISTA Member 31 years
Tri Junior Senior High School
South Henry CTA
ISTA Member 32 years
Tri Junior Senior High School in the tiny Henry County burg of Straughn was abuzz when I visited on the Friday of homecoming. Students, teachers and staff alike modeled maroon Titan sportswear anxious to fill the afternoon with game-day activities and hopes for a homecoming victory.
Students in Connie Hahn’s accounting classroom, however, were hushed as they focused on computer screens despite the evening’s probabilities. “I have high expectations and I expect my students to have the same,” said Connie, a 32-year teaching veteran at Tri High. “I think that enforcing those high expectations translates into good performance and high achievement, so even though its homecoming tonight, we are on task and will stay on task.”
Her duties include teaching Business Information and Technology, Accounting and Advanced Accounting. When she’s not busy calculating spreadsheets she’s working hard helping her local association—the South Henry CTA—having served as vice president or on the negotiations team for too many years to total.
So, from time to time, if she possibly needs help crunching numbers for her local, well, she just steps across the hall where her husband, Andy Hahn, teaches Math, Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Advanced Algebra, Geometry, Pre-Calculus and Calculus. He’s been at Tri just one year less than Connie. Combined they offer more than 60 years of classroom teaching experience.
Andy says his expectations are equally as high as his wife’s. Students from both of the Hahn classrooms have excelled. They estimate that over the years more than 100 of their students have gone on to become engineers, accountants, majored in business or been district, state or national winners in various programs.
“The best thing about my job,” says Andy, “is when kids come back to visit and tell me that they’re successful.” And standing just a few feet away, Connie shakes her head in agreement.
Lafayette Education Association
ISTA Member 3 years
The night before I visited Joe Ruhl’s laboratory he had filled a glass tube with murky water collected from a lake near his home. The next morning a sample from that tube was under a microscope at Jefferson High School in Lafayette. Ruhl’s biology students would be examining the daphnia in the water.
And just what are daphnia? A quick glance showed loads of tiny, almost-transparent organisms squirming across the field of view. “I call them water fleas,” said Ruhl, who also teaches genetics and an independent science research program where Jeff students partner as laboratory apprentices with Purdue University science researchers. His students had already completed a lab activity to see whether the fleas responded to certain stimuli—specifically whether they were attracted to a red light or a blue light rigged to a box that housed the daphnia. Blue won hands down. Why? “We don’t know why,” he shrugged. “As always, there are a lot more questions than answers with science.”
Ruhl’s teaching partners, however, have no trouble answering a question about him. “He’s the best,” said a colleague across the hall. Evidently so. In 2012 he was recognized by the National Science Teachers Association as the sole recipient of the Shell National Science Teaching Award. The award goes to one educator each year that has made an extraordinary impact on students and the community through exemplary teaching plus carries a $10,000 check—both landed on his birthday. His award list goes much deeper: Outstanding Biology Teacher of Indiana, Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching, Purdue School of Science Distinguished Alumnus Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Perhaps more than the stack of awards, Ruhl says he treasures his students. “I get to share my passion for biology and genetics with people who are young, bright, funny and have an incredible quest for knowledge. I fell in love with biology and with teaching so I am very lucky, I get to do both. I was stunned to get the Shell Award, but the real excitement comes every day from my students.”
Hamilton Southeastern Education Association
ISTA Member 6 years
Joshua TeGrotenhuis’ students at Fall Creek Intermediate keep busy with iPads in a science lab that doubles as a homeroom.
TeGrotenhuis spent his first five years teaching in Atlanta but returned to Indiana to be closer to his home state and he transitioned into his position at Fall Creek six years ago with a visible spark of passion and energy. He towers over his charges and takes enormous pride in all of his students but he is particularly proud of some of his after-schoolers.
For the last three years TeGrotenhuis has had a group of students win the statewide competition of the Indiana State Principals Association’s Science Bowl. “It’s an awesome competition for kids who love science. It’s a true learning experience where the students learn from one another. Honestly,” he says, “they take over doing experiments and equations. They are brilliant kids and they work together to achieve goals.”
And what does TeGrotenhuis like best about his students’ victories? “They get to participate in a competition that’s about academics,” he says. “So many celebrations are about sports and this is an academic celebration between students who can excel with similar students. It’s been a true honor for me and I think it’s been equally rewarding for them.”
TeGrotenhuis says application to be in the group and excitement about the science competition grow with each year’s victory.
Hamilton Southeastern Junior High School
Hamilton Southeastern Education Association
ISTA Member 6 years
First-time NEA RA delegate Ben Yoder had no idea what to expect at the 2013 annual meeting in Atlanta last week. “When I first walked into that huge room with more than 8,000 delegates, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size and power of the group.”
Yoder says that it was even more incredible to witness how issues are deliberated and voted on. “It is truly amazing how it all works. I wish more educators could watch the process.” Most impressive he told me was that every idea has merit and delegates respect the different opinions debated on the assembly floor.
In his second year as an Association Rep, Yoder keeps his calendar full with Association activities but his true passion lies in music. He plays violin and teaches orchestra to sixth, seventh and eighth graders. In January his eighth grade students will perform music composed specifically for them by Deborah Baker Monday from Utah who will help Yoder conduct at an invite-only competition by the Indiana Music Education Association. “It’s a unique honor for me and my students.”
Yoder says his first NEA RA experience was an honor as well. “Education is the most noble profession but also the most criticized. It’s good to know that important decisions are coming from the Association and this collaborative body that cares so deeply for the profession.”
Eastern Junior Senior High School
Teaches Junior English Literature
Eastern Howard Classroom Teachers Association
ISTA Member 13 years
Shelby Rooze loves literature, loves history and loves to teach. She puts it all together in her classroom at Eastern Junior Senior High School in Greentown by connecting her junior English class with American history by using technology.
This year she worked through a project called the One on One Initiative that put computers in the hands of all of her students. “I think using iPads helps encourage my students to read more. We’ll complete To Kill a Mockingbird and Cold Sassy Tree this year by using technology.”
Rooze maintains her positive outlook in the classroom but admits that the last few years of teaching have been difficult. She says licensing issues along with cuts in insurance and no raises have discouraged educators.
“What makes it work is that I have a great teaching team and we all work together and share together. We worry about things like merit pay that might pit teacher against teacher, but we strive to be our best, to be strong and to be reliable even during tough times.”
Teaches Grade 3
Hazel Dell Elementary
President Noblesville Teachers’ Forum
ISTA Member for 14 years
Duska Landry says that most people would never guess that she retired from teaching more than 14 years ago.
She took her first teaching job in 1973 in Louisiana. Her husband, who worked for General Motors, was a strong union supporter. “There was no teachers’ union in my district but my husband insisted I find a way to belong,” Landry recalls. “I called the nearest local union and asked how I could get involved.” That was the first time Landry started to organize.
“It started small. Even though Louisiana law stated that teachers couldn’t issue meds to students the teachers still did it. Why? Because the administration just kept asking them to do it and teachers didn’t know the law. We had no planning period. We ate our lunch with our students,” Landry said. “I got almost every teacher to join the union in my building just because I started talking.”
Then her husband took a job in Indiana. Not sure if she’d find a job in the Hoosier state she decided it might be wise take the retirement option after 20 years in Louisiana schools. She had applied for positions in Indiana but had heard nothing when she headed north in 1999. On the day she arrived in Hamilton County she found a letter in her mailbox asking her to interview at a Noblesville school the next day. “They offered me the job on the spot.” And she hit the ground running.
“I like to be involved. I like to be in the know for professional issues and I like doing what is right for teachers. It gives me a great sense of accomplishment when my teachers come to me with a problem and we can work things out,” Landry says with enthusiasm and pride.
Clearly her members agree because in March, Noblesville Teachers’ Forum attained 100 percent membership for 2013.
“People need to know that the union does so much for them. Educators were treated so much differently in Louisiana than they are here because the union is strong here and every day is better because of it.”