Drawing on their strengths

She balances the role of teacher and friend — and in the process, helps her students help themselves.
Sunday, January 29, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:45 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dayton sits isolated in the corner at a desk of his own. But don’t assume he’s in trouble; he just works better without the distraction of neighbors. The two children standing don’t have trouble seeing the board; they just concentrate better vertically. The scratching sound you hear isn’t a class pet; it’s Amy, compulsively sliding her hand across a strip of Velcro secured beneath her desk to help her focus. And, the gum cracking that can be heard over the hum of the white noise machine doesn’t bother the teacher. In fact, neither do the children spread on the floor reading or painting with a partner or talking quietly in groups.

To a visitor, this may seem like pandemonium, but to Southern Boone Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Molly Oilar, it is just a fun day in the classroom.

“I have a high energy level,” says Oilar, whose dark hair bobs and brown eyes sparkle as if to confirm her affirmation. “I have a lot of tolerance for those kids that other people sometimes cannot tolerate. As far as the talkers and the attitude, that doesn’t bother me. We can deal with it.”

On Sept. 14, Oilar’s ability to “deal with it” was recognized outside her spirited classroom. In an assembly attended by the entire

student body, previous students, the faculty and a member of the U.S. Department of Education, she received the 2005 American Star of Teaching Award for Missouri. Created last year, the award goes to one teacher in each state who exemplifies the tenets of the No Child Left Behind educational reform initiative passed by the Bush administration in 2002.

Oilar was commended for raising the reading level of every student in her classroom. She embraces emotionally and academically challenged students, helping them achieve above grade level test scores in math and reading. She is known for a dynamic, innovative approach to teaching and a willingness to invest in each child.

“Molly has a great combination of things that you don’t find in every teacher,” says Sonya Nistendirk, a parent of a former student. “She has energy plus a great sense of humor plus a passion for learning plus the ability to meet individual needs and group needs at the same time. It is the combination of all these things that makes her great.”

“Get these kids to take risks.”

Boxes of Kleenex line the shelves, stacked above a closet bulging with book bags and bulky jackets. Posters extolling life skills and showcasing students’ artwork cover the walls. The teacher’s desk chair, virtually unused, swivels behind a desk covered in papers, art supplies and an economy-size container of hand sanitizer. Nervous energy charges the air as the students wait to hear how they did on their latest assignments.

Mrs. Oilar, as she’s known to her students, feigns frustration as she says: “Before we start today, I have to rag on you a bit.”

“Oh no, these are horrible!” seconds Kay Goddard, the school learning specialist who team teaches with Oilar for math, as she shuffles through the stack of assignments. “These are the worst I’ve ever seen.”

The teachers pause as murmurs of disappointment wave through the room. After letting the tension build through a few more sighs, Oilar speaks again. This time she is all smiles.

“NOT! These papers are great — all As and Bs,” she congratulates her class. “The only mistakes here are baby mistakes.”

Before the 2004 school year, Oilar and Goddard decided to spice up their teaching routine. Many of the students required extra help in the same area, reading, but did not want to be pulled out of regular class and placed in the special programs. As a solution, the two women agreed to team teach and developed a “class within a class” where children of all ability levels work together without sacrificing the need for one-on-one attention.

The result is a classroom atmosphere that is more like a theatrical production, an environment Oilar credits for last year’s success on the SAT-9 test.

“We created such an atmosphere that felt so safe academically that they took risks,” she says. “And you’ve got to get these kids to take risks.”

Those risks are taken in baby steps: reading aloud in front of the class, even while stuttering through a paragraph, or mastering a stubborn math problem. But Oilar never fails to praise, and the pride shines in her eyes.

“The whole point of the class-within-a-class is that students don’t feel singled out,” Oilar says. “True class-within-a-class should run where everybody is getting the help. And it does help. If we could stick two teachers in every classroom, (test) scores across the nation would go shooting up.”

Molly’s husband, Doug, has worked with children with developmental disabilities for the past six years as part of the Cooper County Board of Sheltered Services. As someone who witnesses Molly’s efforts first hand, he thinks the power of the program is in the interaction among students of all abilities.

“I think it is a wonderful opportunity for all these students to learn from one another,” Doug Oilar says. “Whenever you have kids in the gifted program or who have learning disabilities that impair their ability to stay with the other group as far as academics are concerned, being able to work with each other in small group settings is great. You have to be interactive or you are going to lose them.”

Ariana, a student in Oilar’s class last year, would much rather draw than read. It would take her a month to complete a novel because she dreaded the book report that would follow. So Oilar offered Ariana the option of doing a book celebration project, centering on artwork. Rather than writing a report, Ariana illustrated the plot with bright colors and scene changes. Suddenly, instead of struggling through one book a month, she was reading three.

“The biggest key to why Molly is such a great teacher is that she thinks outside of the box a lot,” says Doug Oilar. “If a child works a particular way, she really tries to adapt to that particular child. If this child’s a visual learner or this one needs auditory instructions, she’ll change her lesson.”

For most assignments, projects or tasks, Oilar allows different methods of completing it for those students who need them. After Hurricane Katrina struck, she had her students read an article about the disaster and then describe what they were thinking as they read it. Some made charts of how they could help, others wrote essays, and some drew pictures.

“One of the things about Mrs. Oilar that really impressed me was her ability to meet the individual needs of each student while working with the class as a whole at the same time,” says Nistendirk. “You always felt like your child was very important to her, but no more or less important than any other child in her classroom.”

Oilar creates an individualized education plan for each of her students, then works to stretch their capabilities day by day. The goal: to make sure each is doing his or her best, inside and outside of the classroom.

“Molly takes charge,” says Southern Boone principal Cathi Rust. “She is always envisioning what can be done and takes ownership in knowing the entire child. She’ll know their family, what activities they are I involved in, what the child values, what makes them eager to learn, what makes them nervous to learn. She gets to know them socially and takes the next step to make accommodations to meet their needs.”

This level of involvement comes naturally for Oilar, who says she does it because, quite simply, it works. And she has learned that interaction not only allows individual students to succeed — it ensures she has their undivided attention. One look at her classroom and it’s clear that all eyes are on her.

“You have to act it out, you have to sing it, you have to play games to keep their attention,” she says. “I’ve had so many different kinds of learners — I’ve had kids who learned best through art, so I let them do their book reports through art. I’ve had kids who were oral, so I let them come up here and tell me everything. You have to find out what a kid needs and be able to give them support.”

“... safe to be a learner.”

Jump out of line in Oilar’s class and the timer will start buzzing. Waste her time, she’ll take yours. Disrupt learning and the whole class is one step farther from earning that coveted reward. Although Oilar is more than willing to compromise to meet students’ needs, she refuses to compromise her standards. In a 40-minute period, without once breaking her stride, she thwarts a mounting quarrel, quiets a talker, reprimands a student for shoving and sends a student to the hall for interrupting. Every year she raises her expectations, and every year they are met.

“I tell them they will meet them and they always do,” she says. “I’ve never had to lower my expectations.”

Her secret is a balance between control and flexibility that one could almost weigh with a scale. Oilar says you can allow kids to push boundaries without misbehaving. She uses many tricks, including offering rewards and punishments, chants that signal silence and both group and individual motivators. The result is a unique combination of efficiency and fun.

One recent week, the students are given a surprise math pre-test. They work in groups to create a graph based on classroom data. When one boy becomes more involved with teasing a partner than working, Oilar seamlessly switches from silent observer to rule enforcer. He is dispatched to the hall and allowed back only after a few tears, an apology and a plea for a second chance. When another girl tries to seize control of her group, Oilar is quick to point out that her bossiness level is too high and politely insists she “take it down about three notches.”

“Her kids are on task 100 percent of the time and she is always in their head,” says Rust, the principal. “She is always thinking two steps ahead of them. She can say, ‘I know what you are thinking and I will take you there.’”

More than anything, her belief in each child reminds them of their potential and encourages them to fulfill it.

“We took these kids and we drowned them in confidence — drowned them,” Oilar says. “I mean, ‘you will be successful because I believe in you, Mrs. Goddard believes in you, the rest of the class believes in you.’”

When Dylan gets his first A, the satisfaction he feels can be read on his face.

“Look how hard you persevered, Dylan!” congratulates Oilar. “What does that say?”

“Umm, that I didn’t give up?” Dylan tries.

“Exactly! And you didn’t even want the homework, right dude?”

Oilar says she believes in every student and, as a result, her students begin to believe in themselves.

“They have to realize that within these four walls they are safe to be a learner, they are safe to make mistakes,” she says. “And they truly have to believe that the teacher is on their side. If that means getting in their faces to push them a little harder, that’s what I am going to do. I’m not just their friend, I have to be their teacher, too.”

“We’ve never let down our community.”

Although her name adorns the 2005 Stars of Teaching plaque, Oilar is quick to insist the honor is not hers alone. She says a big factor in her ability to be an all-star teacher is the support she receives from her school, her family and her community.

“Southern Boone as a whole, we’ve had a trend of really good test scores,” she says. “We’ve never let down our community. Our principal will do anything to help kids. If I need a new set of books, because I think it will help the kids, either the PTA will pay for it, the building principal will pay for it or they’ll find the money somewhere. It is all about the kids.”

Rust agrees and says innovation is her passion. She tries to instill her own love of learning in every teacher so that she can be confident that her students will be well-equipped to enter the sometimes unforgiving world of middle school.

“My philosophy for every teacher is to set high expectations, use the resources around them — the child, student, parent — to make sure we give them the best education and make them successful every day — academically, socially and emotionally,” Rust says.

And at Southern Boone, the fifth-grade teachers share more than just a common philosophy.

“We share everything,” Oilar says. “We share books, we share ideas. We basically run the same reading and writing program, so that no matter what class they are in, these kids are getting the same instruction, the same assessment, so that when they go to sixth grade as a whole next year, there won’t be differences as far as who was taught what.”

Consistency throughout the building contributes to her students’ good behavior, she says. They know what to expect, because it was the same thing expected of them in previous years.

“I still have goals and dreams, too.”

When the dismissal bell rings at 3:15 p.m., a teacher’s day is just beginning. A full-time teacher and mother of a 2-year-old son, Oilar knows this better than anyone. To the awe of her family and friends, and perhaps at the expense of a full night’s sleep, she does the balancing act with ease and grace.

“I don’t know how she does it, but she does it all without sacrificing time spent with us,” says Doug Oilar. “She has really made an effort to not neglect anyone, whether it’s her students or family.”

When she is not teaching or spending time with her family, Oilar wears yet another hat — that of a student as she is now working toward a master’s degree.

A self-proclaimed “reading conference junkie,” Oilar says she’s learning all the time. She’s made it almost a hobby to pick up tips from workshops, colleagues and even e-mail exchanges. Then she takes what she learns and makes it her own.

“My reading and writing program is a mismatch,” she says. “I call it the dirty sock drawer. It is all the leftovers from other programs that have proven to work. Take what is good and use it; let the other stuff go.”

That pick-and-use process never stops. A technique that worked in August might not work in December. Oilar is constantly adapting, altering and adding to her programs to meet her students’ diverse needs.

“We never get caught in ruts,” she says. “It’s always: What is the next step? And you’ll hear us at the end of the year say, ‘OK, that was fun, but now let’s tweak it.’ I’ve been doing this for seven years, and it has been different every single year.”

As a basic rule, Rust defines an all-star teacher as someone who loves learning as much as they love teaching. A teacher like Oilar.

“(All-star teachers) are also leaders of learning for themselves and their peers,” says Rust. “That is really the greatest thing Molly sparks with my staff — she has a love of learning and she sparks that with everyone.”

Her love of learning runs so deep that as a teacher and as a student, her journey, always changing and always new, has just begun.

“My goal is to teach at the college level. That is my dream,” Oilar says. “And, I let my kids know that — that I still have goals and dreams, too — that I want to teach teachers.”

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