COLUMBIA — As the first day of the new academic year approached for Columbia Public Schools, teachers across the district were busy Wednesday getting their classrooms ready for new crops of students.
At Smithton Middle School, the wall behind sixth-grade science teacher Meera Sood’s desk is cluttered with drawings of her created by former students. Among them is a pencil drawing of Sood as a sunflower with phrases such as “you are kind” and “you are funny” on her petals. Another shows her under a tree holding a magnifying glass.
Above her chair, a poster displays dozens of wallet-size photographs of former students. A sign taped to the side of her desk reads: “Be sure brain is in gear before engaging mouth.”
“I want to be able to use science to teach character,” Sood said.
On the day before the new school year, Sood was busy moving stacks of glossy books from one empty desk to another. Nearby, two other teachers studied a list of expectations for their students, such as “students must get their parents’ signatures once a week in their agendas.”
On the opposite wall, next to a globe showing the borders of the tectonic plates, was a poster listing different rules. It's what Smithton calls the “Wildcat GRRRR Code of Conduct,” a set of maxims such as “treating others as you wish to be treated,” “fessing up when you mess up,” “completing your homework and turning it in on time” and “doing your personal best.”
“We have students tell us examples of when they’ve seen these qualities, and when they haven’t acted this way in school, they reflect on what they did,” Sood said.
She doesn’t plan to go over the rules with her students on the first day of class. “We teach it throughout the year,” she said. “It’s better to teach it in context.”
The first unit her class will cover is life sciences: cells, organisms and ecosystems.
“You see a huge amount of growth between the beginning of sixth grade and the end of seventh grade,” Sood said.
Brittany Lange, first-grade teacher
Owls have taken over rookie first-grade teacher Brittany Lange’s classroom at New Haven Elementary School.
On every desk, there is a name tag with a rainbow of owls above the student’s name. Most of the posters on the walls have owls on them, often more than one. A colorful drawing of a big, round great horned owl is next to the door.
“My theme this year is owls,” Lange said.
Every week, Lange will choose a student to be the classroom’s “Great Horned Owl.” The holder of that office will be the teacher’s assistant and will fill out a poster designed like the front page of a newspaper, with headlines such as “Meet My Hero” and “My Favorite Movie.”
“They get to be the star of the week. It’s a responsibility thing, as well,” Lange said.
Lange is fulfilling a teaching fellowship while attending the graduate teaching program at MU. She has wanted to be a teacher since being inspired by her own first-grade teacher, Tiffany Holman, whom she still speaks to often.
“She was fun, smart, creative, and she cared about you,” Lange said. “Students want to feel cared about. They want to succeed because they sense you want them to succeed.”
Lange has been setting up her classroom since June with the help of her husband, her parents, her sister and her mentor from the graduate program, Linda Bozoian. She has been collecting books for her classroom for years.
“I’m nervous,” she said. “I’m excited, too, but I’m nervous.”
Doug Mirts, Hickman assistant principal and athletics director
Hickman High School was bustling Wednesday. Outside, city workers were continuing work on the sidewalks along Providence Road. Custodians were working hard to get the school gym ready and discussing what more needed to be done. Some teachers trickled out of the school to go home and rest for the big day on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Doug Mirts was roaming the hallways touching base with faculty and staff. He and his family are Kewpies to the core.
Mirts graduated from Hickman. He's also taught at the school and coached its football and wrestling teams. Now the assistant principal and athletics director at Hickman, Mirts uses his office primarily for paperwork. More often, he's wandering around the school and campus making connections with students and teachers.
"Thats what it's all about," Mirts said. "That's why I got into education."
Mirts' wife, Tonya Mirts, teaches physical education and coaches girls basketball at Hickman. "We have two kids that graduated and one that is a freshman and will be here next year," Doug Mirts said.
Next year, Hickman will begin hosting freshman students as a realignment of district grade configurations takes place. To prepare for the transition, freshmen are being allowed to play on several of Hickman's sports teams while they're attending junior high schools.
The Mirts' youngest daughter, Kelsey, 14, will attend Hickman next fall. Kelsey already plays softball for Hickman and intends to try out for basketball and soccer. Kelsey Mirts has the good fortune of becoming a Kewpie a year earlier than her family predecessors.
Megan Halphin, high school English teacher
Megan Halphin is excited for the first day of school. While decorating her classroom at Rock Bridge High School on Wednesday, she took time to talk about her expectations for the coming year.
It's a big one for Halphin, a recent MU graduate who will begin her first year of teaching high school English.
The first challenge is getting over the first-day jitters.
“Every first-year teacher is nervous and anxious about what’s to come,” she said. “But I have been well prepared.”
Halphin, who graduated from MU this year with a bachelor’s degree in English education, has been preparing for this moment over the past four years. Her education included a student-teaching stint at Hickman last year covering advanced-placement literature and a literacy seminar.
Once the bell rings at 3 p.m. Thursday, she will have completed Day One of the first year of teaching that, according to her peers, gauges how dedicated a person is to the profession.
“A lot of people say you really figure out if you want to teach or not during student teaching or during your first year of teaching,” she said. “I think I’m in the right place at the right time with the right people.”
Halphin is confident that she'll make it through the first day and that she'll still be teaching a few years from now. After all, it's the love of kids that attracted her to the job.
Nancy Shikles, ninth-grade physics teacher
Nancy Shikles, a ninth-grade physics teacher at Jefferson Junior High, has a challenge waiting for her students. On Thursday, she'll pass out sheets called “personal road maps,” asking students to tell about their favorite books, their passions, influential people in their lives and other interesting facts about themselves.
“On the first couple days, one thing I love to do is to get to know the students and hear all the neat things they are interested in,” Shikles said.
One of the road-map questions Shikles finds most important is the one that asks students about “bumps in the road,” personal factors that might interfere with their school work.
“It’s for me to know that this kid is going through a rough time (that) I need to be aware of,” Shikles said.
Shikles has been teaching for 10 years, including seven at Jefferson Junior High. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in animal science, then spent 14 years conducting tests for chemical and pharmaceutical companies at ABC Labs. She decided to switch careers and went back to school to become certified as a teacher at MU.
“My old job, I sat at a desk and I did the same thing all day, every day basically for 14 years," Shikles said. "Teaching is different. Every day is different; every year is different.”
Alex Nichols, high school social studies teacher
After five years of teaching, Alex Nichols isn't satisfied.
The social studies teacher at Rock Bridge High School has prepared for the first day of school for the past four years but said he hasn't yet found the precise formula for getting the most out of his students.
“In teaching you always want to be able to do more, and you never feel quite ready,” Nichols said while working at his desk Wednesday. “There’s always more that we think we can do and that we want to do.”
Nichols, who also coaches the Bruins’ boys soccer team, plans to create “engaging lessons” this year to help motivate students to actually learn the material.
If his class discusses the Cold War, for example, he wants to go beyond the perspectives of Russians and Americans. Instead, he would have his students create proposals or plans as if they were former Russian Premier Joseph Stalin or former U.S. President Harry Truman.
Those sorts of strategies, Nichols believes, will move the students toward better understanding and problem solving, allowing teachers to truly teach rather than regurgitate information.
“We teach for them,” he said. “We don’t teach for the content.”
Molly Lyman, half kindergarten, half first-grade class teacher
Purple and gold pom-pons lay scattered around the floor of the common area at Hickman. Girls chat about school and their summer jobs as they await cheer practice. A few help their coach cut laminated zoo animals in preparation for her elementary school class.
Molly Lyman teaches at Ridgeway Elementary by day and coaches Hickman cheerleaders by night. The team has been practicing every day for the last two weeks to prepare for its first away game on Aug. 24 and its first home game on Aug. 31.
Finally, Lyman calls the girls to order, telling them to stop cutting and go warm up; the girls are reluctant to set down their project. She tells them to stretch, then shortly after to stretch their arms and legs, not their mouths. Excited chatter wanes and serious stretching begins for the high school and competitive teams.
Lyman teaches a class that is half kindergarten and half first grade — every year her half kindergarten class graduates to the first-grade half of the class.
She said she loves having the same kids for two years and watching the first-graders as they transform into role models for the new kindergarteners.
Lyman, who graduated from MU with her bachelor's and master's degrees, has been teaching and coaching since 2005.
"I've been doing this for a long time, and I just don't want to give it up yet," she said.
This year, Hickman will include freshmen on their cheer squad. Lyman said she is a little worried about the logistics of getting some of the team members from the junior high to all the cheerleading events.
But she's more focused on whipping the girls into cheer shape for the school year.
"The kids are great," she said.
Jessica Kukal, second-grade teacher
The new classroom is waiting to be fully decorated.
Jessica Kukal, a new second-grade teacher at Grant Elementary School, has spent two weeks working on it.
There are baskets with markers, play cards, erasers, pencils, crayons and other school supplies sitting under the projector. Rosemary, a white fluffy pet rabbit named after popular children's book author Rosemary Wells, already has moved in. Students' name tags are affixed to the desks.
A “job tree” is posted on the wall next to the door. Green leaves with the words “door holder,” “pet feeder,” “mail carrier” and other positions hang on the tree.
“Everybody has a job for a week,” Kukal said.
The "pet feeder"is responsible for feeding Rosemary every day. The "mail carrier" delivers letters to students and Kukal at the end of the school day.
All these roles are set up to cultivate a sense of responsibility among second-graders. After Thursday, apple stickers with students’ names will be posted on the tree next to the green leaves, indicating each student’s job.
Along with teaching responsibility, Kukal is dedicated to building a classroom in which kids love to read. Her blackboard is covered with book titles.
If a book looks exciting, she said, "kids will be more intrigued to come over and see it," Kukal said. "I’m really focused on reading, and that’s one thing I really work on all year."
“If they feel comfortable here, they learn better,” Kukal said. “As long as I can give them that opportunity to be comfortable, I think it works for them.”
Missourian reporter Dandan Zou contributed to this report.