Former Rock Bridge students return to the school as teachers

Monday, November 14, 2011 | 3:42 p.m. CST; updated 8:16 p.m. CST, Monday, November 14, 2011
Bree Engebritson sits at her desk in her classroom at Rock Bridge High School on Monday. Engebritson graduated from Rock Bridge in 2007 and now teaches in the same room she had class in during high school.

COLUMBIA — Bree Engebritson sits at a desk in a classroom at Rock Bridge High School. She gets to work with a stack of papers on her table. 

If this were four years ago, Engebritson would have been a student, busily preparing for college. Today, she is the teacher, educating the students who sit at the exact desk she learned from. 

Engebritson is one of about 13 former students currently working as a teacher at Rock Bridge. These teachers have unique insight into the school environment, and they are able to relate to current students by calling on their past experience as students.

After attending college, these four teachers returned to their alma mater to teach alongside their past educators. For them, high school did not end at graduation. 

Marilyn Toalson

Marilyn Toalson sits inside her quiet classroom for gifted students as the lunch bell rings. Instantaneously, her calm space is filled with students laughing about an unsuccessful psychology experiment as they eat lunch.

As she looks at her students filling the classroom with smiles and laughter, Toalson reflects on her journey to becoming a teacher. 

"I thought I was gonna be an astronaut really, that was my first," Toalson said. "Since there were no women astronauts then, I decided to become a teacher of astronauts."

Toalson was part of Rock Bridge's first graduating class in 1974. Prior to attending Rock Bridge her senior year, she went to Hickman High School. During her junior year at Hickman, Toalson helped pick the mascot and school colors for Rock Bridge, she said.

Growing up on a farm, Toalson said she was forced to attend Rock Bridge after it opened because she lacked transportation to Hickman, which was then out of her district. At Rock Bridge, Toalson was able to rekindle friendships from earlier schools.

"We had gone into town for high school and then those of us that came back to Rock Bridge we kind of re-united with our friends from grade school and junior high and it kind of seemed like our home because it was in our community," Toalson said. 

Due to the smaller class size at Rock Bridge, Toalson experienced more freedom at her new school, which is a common desire for many high school students, but especially for teens during the 1970s.

"We were kids of the '70s, so we were wannabe-hippies, we were too young to be hippies," Toalson said. "We were a generation, I think, that was hungry for that freedom, we thought we were asking for freedom and they were granting it to us."

After college and teaching at other schools, Toalson returned to Rock Bridge and found herself working with the same teachers she had taken classes from. 

"It was very strange the first year, to walk in the building and the teachers were still here that I had, and I was an adult," Toalson said. 

The transition from being a student at a desk to a teacher at the blackboard is common for Rock Bridge. Toalson works with two former Rock Bridge students as colleagues, and through them she is able to pass on the traditions of Rock Bridge.

"What's really nice now is that my two colleagues that I'm teaching gifted with now are former Rock Bridge students, and so we have that commonality even though they're much younger than I am," Toalson said. "It's kind of, you know, passing the torch to really good people."

Bree Engebritson

Just four years ago, Engebritson was the quintessential Rock Bridge student. She was involved in numerous activities at the school including Young Republicans, varsity cheerleading and other service organizations. 

Engebritson always knew she did not want to travel far from Rock Bridge, a factor that contributed to her decision to go just down the road to college at MU.

For Engebritson, the people and environment she found at Rock Bridge are part of the reason she came back to the school to be a teacher.

"My teachers that I had my senior year were always really supportive," Engebritson said. "A switch flipped in my head that, that was something that I would be interested in, so that's what I went to school for." 

Now back at Rock Bridge, Engebritson began her first year of teaching this fall. She shares a classroom with another former Rock Bridge student, Matt Dingler. They teach a combined world studies class. 

Like other teachers at Rock Bridge, Engebritson strives to provide her students with the right amount of "freedom with responsibility," something they will have to balance on their own throughout life. 

"The freedom with responsibility aspect just it really sets you up all for college," Engebritson said. "You feel like a trust with your teachers, and you want to earn their respect and earn their trust."

While 0thers could not be paid to go back to high school, Engebritson enjoyed high school so much that she decided to come back to it every day for work.

"I loved high school, and I loved Rock Bridge," Engebritson said. "I think if you've gone to school at Rock Bridge, you see that there's just a really unique environment."

Matt Dingler

For history teacher Matt Dingler, the road back to Rock Bridge was filled with a few more bumps along the way. 

Although he always saw himself returning to Rock Bridge, Dingler originally entered MU as a journalism major. 

"I went in as journalism and decided that it was a little too cutthroat," Dingler said. "I had fought the teaching thing because I wanted to make more money than that."

Money aside, Dingler chose to return to Rock Bridge, the same school he graduated from in 2004, to be a teacher.

Dingler said Rock Bridge has improved in academics and athletics since he was a student at the school. Even with its improvements over the years, Dingler is impressed with the steadfast philosophy of Rock Bridge. 

"I think that Rock Bridge does a good job of forming the person as a whole as opposed to just putting out a product," Dingler said. "That it's not an assembly line of bodies that go through here and then hopefully we get them all out with a certain GPA, but there really is a focus on these are people, people not products."

Angel Renick

Angel Renick didn't expect a journey back to Rock Bridge.

After graduating from Rock Bridge in 2003, Renick attended both Cottey College in Nevada, Mo., and MU, in addition to working for AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps. 

During her time with AmeriCorps, Renick worked with youth in Louisiana who did not pass their Louisiana Educational Assessment Program exam in math, she said.

The tests are administered to Louisiana students in grades four and eight to decide if they can advance to the next grade, according to the Louisiana Department of Education website.

It was during her time working in Louisiana that Renick decided to switch her major from art to education.

"Even though I liked doing art, I didn't feel like I could help as many people," Renick said. 

Renick completed her student-teaching at Rock Bridge. Today, she teaches math to high schoolers in a school that still has her old artwork on the walls. 

Renick works hard to teach her students to have perspective in high school, which can be difficult time of life for some.

"I loved high school, (but) it was not the best time of life," Renick said. "I want to help other kids get to the best times of their life."

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