We’re grateful for our A+ teachers

05/13/2014 6:40 PM

05/15/2014 6:31 PM

It’s high school graduation season and with that, 913 salutes seniors and those who helped get them here: Their teachers.

As the school year began last fall, The Star enlisted the six school districts in Johnson County to help us honor teachers and students. We asked districts to put the word out to seniors that we wanted to hear about their favorite teacher — of all the teachers they had during their 13 years of school. Who affected you, touched your life? Why was that teacher special?

We asked seniors to write an essay. One from each district would be published in The Star. In some cases, the district chose one; in others, we chose the top essay. In all cases, the students wrote from the heart.

What you’ll find here are six stories of teachers in the trenches. They are teachers who challenged their students intellectually and morally. Teachers who reached out to hurting kids. Teachers who took time to say, “You are worth my time, my attention.”

Incidentally, they are all high school teachers. We had visions of posing an 18-year-old in an under-sized elementary school desk for a sweet photo, but not one essay submitted was about anyone other than a high school teacher. Perhaps high school teachers come along at an especially intense, special and dramatic time in a student’s life. It’s clear these kids are listening, learning and watching. They know — and feel — when a teacher cares. And they are receptive to the adult who reaches out.

Teachers feel under fire of late.

The Kansas Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback just enacted a law that ends due process rights, meaning they can be fired without a hearing for any reason — or no reason. Lawmakers argue that teacher unions have too much power and that it’s too hard to get rid of a bad teacher.

They are dealing with new academic standards from their district’s version of the Common Core curriculum and new standardized tests that go along. They face rapid technological changes and pressures to adapt. In most districts, they are facing more students than ever before who don’t have enough food at home or parental stability.

And yet, excellent teachers abound.

These six teachers all have touched a life, mostly likely many. They are recognized leaders.

Shawnee Mission South band director Steve Adams has led award-winning bands. David Hastings, Olathe South drama teacher, is a well-known director at Theatre in the Park. Maria Worthington, a Blue Valley North language arts teacher, earlier this year was named a Kansas Master Teacher. That’s one of the most prestigious honors a Kansas teacher can earn.

“She’s known to be the hardest teacher at our school,” Kaitlyn Cotton told The Star about Worthington, her favorite teacher. “There were other teachers but I wanted to challenge myself as much as possible and I knew that staying in her class would do that for me.”

These are teachers who challenge their students — in the classroom and in life.

To them and the many, many others who work so hard to bring out the best in their students, we salute you.

Band of brothers

A typical morning sees me saunter into the band room of Shawnee Mission South High School and wave to the man that has done more for me than I could ever imagine.

Steve Adams, standing a menacing 5 feet, 6 inches tall, has been the band director for 27 years, teaching as a proud South alumnus. In that time, he has transformed the program into a perennial powerhouse. He has a resume full of success in marching competitions, concert band festivals, student placement in district and all-state bands, etc. What sets Mr. Adams apart is that these accolades, as numerous and far-reaching as they are, are not defining factors. Mr. Adams stresses that while these quantitative measures of success are convenient gauges, they merely scratch the surface of what it means to be an top-notch educator.

Mr. Adams is the consummate musician. To say that he has immersed himself in his craft is a vast understatement. From his participation in the Philharmonia of Greater Kansas City to his open discussions in Music Theory regarding new musical discoveries, it is evident that he is dedicated to finding new ways to remain engaged and plugged-in to the ever-changing world of music.

He assigns his jazz ensemble three CD reviews to be completed per quarter, purposely exposing students to fresh sounds and encouraging their unfiltered opinions. He believes the exercise works two-fold: enabling student discovery but also providing new perspectives on music he has encountered before.

It’s rare to find a teacher that feeds off his students to the degree Mr. Adams does, but the process is immensely beneficial to both teacher and student.

In the classroom, excellence is the unspoken code. Mr. Adams does not have time for unpreparedness. Commanding a room full of unique and dynamic personalities to achieve the manifestation of live music is a tall order, especially in the ever-tumultuous atmosphere of a high school. But Mr. Adams has no trouble consistently obtaining the high standards he aims to achieve. Like a gifted surgeon, Mr. Adams readies his scalpel (baton) and prepares to get to work. Sensing weak spots in music as a structural engineer sees a building, he effortlessly guides the ensemble from point to point, weaving together rehearsal time into a phenomenal final product. He does his homework and is never caught off-guard when new challenges arise in musical literature.

Mr. Adams refuses to let his ego stand in the way of creating an environment designed to fuel student growth and achievement. He serves both as a motivator and fan, determined and fully committed to paving the path to success for his students.

The teacher I avoided eye contact with as a freshman summoned to his office as he commented on my need to shed immaturity and realize my full potential is the same one to greet me following the final note of an exhilarating solo piece, the culmination of months of preparation, to clasp me on both shoulders and shout “fantastic job, man!”

Knowing when it is time to pull a student aside for one-on-one counseling is key to the respect that he garners from his students.

He has overseen many brilliant high school students in his time. But he also is committed to the student in the back who may not have the musical inclination or talent of his/her peers. Cultivating a deeper appreciation for music is a goal he does not just afford to his best and brightest; all members of the band are subject to his influence.

He understands how to balance a great many personalities in order to get the band to function at its highest level.

Personally, I lack a singular “I knew I wanted to be a teacher when…” narrative. It has been a period of gradual awakening, with Mr. Adams playing the lead role. Seeing such an influential figure in action almost daily for the previous four years has shaped my character in ways I could have never envisioned. I now have an integral foundation of knowledge that I know will serve me well as my own musical journey continues.

I strive one day to emulate Mr. Adams’ style, musicianship and commitment to excellence in my own classroom.

Conner Viets, 18, of Overland Park. A career path

“I can’t teach you how to act. I can only teach you the basic instruments, and you have to teach yourselves how to put them into motion.”

When Mr. (David) Hastings said this to my acting one class on the very first day of freshman year I was slightly confused. I wondered how he planned to teach a class called Acting One if he wasn’t planning on teaching us how to act. Little did I know that this method of instruction would not only allow me to improve my skill but it would also teach me many lessons about myself.

Over the next four years I took every single acting class possible, and I participated in all of the plays and musicals throughout the year. Some might say I became obsessed with theater.

One of my favorite experiences was the play “Our Town.” It was the end of my freshman year and I had just received the lead role for the show. I was shocked.

At our first rehearsal I was very intimidated because of the overwhelming amount of talented upperclassman I was surrounded by. After rehearsal Mr. Hastings called me aside and said, “I can tell you’re intimidated. You performed today like you were scared. If you had performed like that at auditions, I never would have given you the role.”

His words really struck a chord with me. I wanted to prove to him and everyone else in the room that I was meant to play this part and that I had the confidence to succeed. From that day forward I vowed to always act with confidence. Even if I didn’t feel it in that moment, I pretended like I did, and soon enough I believed it.

And because of this, my confidence transferred into other things as well. I walked job interviews, important meetings, unknown situations and many situations with a new air of confidence. Not arrogant, but not timid.

I will always thank Mr. Hastings for inspiring me to acquire this trait. It is solely because of the words that he said to me on that very first day of “Our Town” rehearsal that I have come to believe in myself and walk with my held high on every occasion no matter how nervous I am.

Although I will forever be grateful to Mr. Hastings for inspiring me to have confidence, among many other important lessons, I think the most important thing I learned from him is to follow my dreams.

Once I figured out how much I loved acting, I started thinking about doing it for a living when I grew up. He encouraged me and helped me every step of the way. He spent so much of his time talking to me about different college theater programs and helping me decide which would fit me best and helping me pick material for auditions. He never doubted me or my desire to become a professional actress for a second.

And because of this, because of his dedication and his effort, in four short months I will be attending the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music to major in dramatic performance. It’s a school that I had only dreamed of attending. But Mr. Hastings forced me to make my dreams a reality. He forced me to believe in myself, and he always encouraged me to take it one step further. And because of this I could not be more grateful.

Kenzie Clark, 17, of Olathe. The paper clip lesson

Once I entered high school, my life was changed forever, and freshman year history class is where it all began.

I walked into the classroom and sat in a seat thinking that we would eventually be moved to where the teacher had assigned seats. The bell rang and everyone was pretty chatty, as it was our first day back. There was no teacher to tell us to quiet down. Shortly after the bell rang, a tall, thin man with a mustache, so perfectly groomed, came into the room joyfully. As he walked into the room, he shouted, “How we doin’?!”

No one said a word. He exited, walked back into the room and did the same thing again. This time, everyone answered.

Mr. (Paul) Young is one of the most motivated teachers I have ever met. With everything he does, he does it with precision and determination. There is not one thing that man could not do. His goal in teaching our class was to make sure that at the end of every class we learned something new. No matter what it was, he wanted to get through to us, and he did.

At the beginning of every year, he gives a paper clip speech to his freshmen. As part of this speech, he gives every student a paper clip, and asks them not to bend it or break its shape in anyway. After every student has a paper clip, he begins to explain that this tiny little paper clip is just like our image that we put out to others. If one were to make a hasty decision, it would put a bend in our image. Once our image has been “bent,” we can never put it back. People will look at us from what we have done and continue to do.

As he expressed how important it is to focus on making good decisions, many of my peers began to blow him off. I did not. I listened to him, taking in every word he said. Without this speech, I may have not been as prepared for what high school was going to bring my way.

Mr. Young was not being overprotective by telling us this paper clip story. He was trying to help us become better people and to make sure we stayed true to ourselves.

Throughout my four years of high school, I have kept my paper clip, and I have not bent it. Just because high school is over, I am not going to throw it away. Instead I am going to keep it and hope to reinforce what has been installed into my heart.

There is no better person to be than yourself, and thanks to Mr. Young, I learned this lesson early.

Hailey Taylor, 18, of Spring Hill. ‘My guardian angel’

I have been blessed over the past 12 years with a lot of passionate and kind teachers, but one sticks out in my mind when I think about a particular time in my life.

My junior year of Mill Valley High School I found myself sitting on my couch in between my parents looking at my brother across the room and hearing the word “cancer” come out of my dad’s mouth. My dad had cancer in his tonsils. It was totally curable but it would take some serious medicine and months of pain and patience to overcome.

All of my teachers knew about it. My math teacher Sarah Sides, whom I had always gotten along with, reached out to me almost every day to check on how I was doing and if there was anything she could do. She would randomly call me down to her room to give me a hug and tell me it was going to be OK.

Her intentions were sincere and her attitude meant more to me than anyone will ever know. Being in a school and seeing other kids that are happy and healthy with happy and healthy families was not exactly a walk in the park during a time of sickness.

It was hard to pay attention in class knowing my dad was in a hospital getting needles poked in him or radiation aimed at his throat. Going home at the end of the day was bittersweet because I just wanted to be there all the time to help him.

But the hardest thing about the whole process was seeing the strongest, most important person in my life in the worst pain ever. Every Thursday I stay after school to work on the yearbook and a few months in to my dad’s treatment, I was having a rough day. Before I went to yearbook, I went straight to Mrs. Sides’ room and broke down. It was the first time I had cried in front of anyone since I found out about his diagnosis.

What helped me wasn’t what Mrs. Sides said, what she did or even what she didn’t do. Just the fact that she was there and had an empty room for me to come cry in and be in when I needed to was the biggest thing in the world to me.

Not once did Mrs. Sides treat me differently in class, and I was very appreciative for that. I did not really want to make a big deal out of my dad’s situation because I always put on a happy face and a strong front at school. I’m Shelby, not the girl whose dad has cancer. Being at school and acting like nothing was wrong was so hard but having a haven to break down in while I was in that dark place was a lifesaver to me.

Mrs. Sides’ words and hugs and support always flooded my mind when I was at home having a rough day and couldn’t go to her classroom. She was the first one I called when I found out he was cancer-free. She’s the one I still go to when I’m having a bad day.

Mrs. Sides was not only a great teacher that helped my get my first A in a math class, she has taught me more about life than I will ever be able to thank her for. She has taught me that there is much more to a person than their problems. She taught me that there’s more to school than learning and sports. She taught me that high school does not have to be a scary place and that I don’t need to ever be alone.

Mrs. Sides is what I often call my guardian angel. In fact, for Christmas last year, I bought her a Willow Tree Angel that is holding an apple. Mrs. Sides is my hero and someone I strive to be like every day of my life. If I am half as compassionate as Mrs. Sides is when I’m older, I will be able to say that I am successful. This world needs more people like Mrs. Sides.

Shelby Rayburn, 18, of Shawnee. A healthy attitude

There are some students who show up to class only because they have to and get grades just good enough to keep them out of trouble. They slide by and, after graduation, disappear into oblivion. The difference between these students and the bright-eyed, ambitious, successful students is the lack of a mentor. Almost every successful student has an adult that has positively affected their life, whether a teacher or coach; mine just happens to be both.

John McIntire was my social studies teacher my freshman year in high school. I could immediately tell I would enjoy his class when I learned of his sarcastic, smart-aleck personality that seemed to mirror my own.

My idolization of Mr. McIntire grew when I discovered he had Type 1 diabetes, just as I did. It was as if I had found an older version of myself. Of course, when track season came and I learned he was one of my coaches I was ecstatic.

Mr. McIntire has helped me countless times throughout high school when I have forgotten or ran out of my diabetes testing strips that I needed. That is only the beginning of why he is my favorite teacher. Although I cannot remember which year it happened or the exact words he said, I can distinctly remember the feeling it gave me. As we drove back to the high school from the track so that l could check out my uniform, we began to talk about diabetes.

He said that he used to be like me. When he was young he felt invincible and that nothing mattered. He warned me that it was not true. That every time my parents got angry with me for a high blood sugar it was because they cared about me.

I hate when my parents try to tell me about my own health, even to this day, because they do not understand what I have to go through. They do not understand the complexity of controlling my blood sugar and all the factors acting upon me that a normal person does not have to deal with.

He explained their intentions though, and I always try to remember it. He said they cared about me. He said he cared about me. I am embarrassed to say it still makes my eyes water, even now, as I recollect the moment.

I also remember a time, simply in passing, he stopped to ask if everything was all right. It was a time when I was stressed out with my school work and having a bad time at home. He said I had not been my “usual, bubbly self lately.” Although I answered with a simple “I’ve been tired,” it meant the world to me that he had noticed and cared.

Sometimes that is all it takes to change a slide-by student into an ambitious child, and later on, a successful adult. Sometimes all it takes is to know someone cares.

I am now about to leave Gardner-Edgerton High School. Through four years Mr. McIntire has, and continues to, push me to be the best I can be. He believes in my abilities both academically and athletically. That is why I would like to thank him for everything he has done for me. I also would like to dedicate a track medal I hope to earn in Wichita to him. The state meet is after graduation and quite possibly the last time I will see him.

I dream of making him proud one last time.

Taylor Claybon, 17, of Gardner. The right decision

We all have been faced with situations where a choice or decision directly affects our lives. Although some decisions in my life have felt nearly impossible, the choice to write about a teacher who impacted my life was exceedingly easy.

My AP English literature teacher, Maria Worthington, changed my life with her enthusiasm for success, her genuine support and her words of wisdom.

At the beginning of my senior year at Blue Valley North High School I was faced with a choice: to stay in AP and challenge myself or to switch out and take the easier road. During the first week, Mrs. Worthington said to my class, “You are all rock stars! Together we are going to do great things!”

At that moment I realized Mrs. Worthington was going to be one of the best teachers I had been given the opportunity to meet. It was because of her positive enthusiasm that I chose to stay and challenge myself.

Toward the end of the first semester, my father fell very ill. He was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition that required my full attention, including time I was supposed to be in school. The second day that my dad was in the hospital I took an hour to go in and talk to my teachers, who had just heard the news of my father’s illness from my principal.

The second I walked through Mrs. Worthington’s door her arms and her heart were open to my not-so-stable mental and emotional state. After she released me from a very much-needed hug, she said to me, “Kaitlyn, everyone here is pulling for you. Everyone here understands that your family is the number one priority right now.” Although all of my other teachers were supportive and understanding, Mrs. Worthington went from being my teacher to being my support system with just a few words.

Thankfully my dad recovered in due time, but it was not long after that I was faced with another difficult decision. A scholarship became available and the process was quite simple: write an essay and fill out a survey. However, the essay forced me to dig into my past and write about devastating events that I had locked away for a very long time.

After Mrs. Worthington finished reading my rough draft for the first time, she looked up at me with tears in her eyes and proclaimed, “You are the one who gets to decide what your life will be. Take the power back from the things that took it from you in the first place.”

Every now and then the world is presented with a gift of some extraordinary measure. Mrs. Worthington is one of those gifts. She cares so deeply about everyone with whom she comes in contact, and she goes above and beyond every day to teach her students. I think the most important quality that Mrs. Worthington has is her capacity to care and sympathize.

Life comes down to choices, at the end of the day the choices we make determine what our future will hold. The decision to stay in Mrs. Worthington’s class will forever be one of the best decisions I have ever made. Mrs. Worthington may not realize how she impacts students every day, not just through her teaching but also through the qualities that make her who she is. To write about how extraordinary she is in a short essay seems unfair.

I hope that one day I will be able to impact someone’s life in the same way that she impacted mine, through positive enthusiasm, genuine compassion and words of wisdom.

Kaitlyn Cotton, 18, of Overland Park. A mentor in staying positive

Mr. Breedlove at Blue Valley North is great at his job, and he has a witty sense of humor, as well as a decent head of hair. But I think of Mr. Breedlove as more of a mentor. He not only provided me with sufficient study materials amidst my first-AP-test panic, but he encouraged me to study hard and relax. During my junior year, he dedicated his own time to helping me submit an entry for the Profiles in Courage essay contest, setting aside his work whenever I needed help.

When he was my AP European History teacher sophomore year, he taught me just as much inside the classroom as he did outside of it. In 2003, Mr. Breedlove’s eldest son, Matthew, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2. For Mr. Breedlove and his wife, Leslie, the news was shocking, devastating; in the early 2000s, autism was much more uncommon than it is now. But Mr. and Mrs. Breedlove maintained positive attitudes and worked hard to find the best care for their son. They became advocates for autism, spreading awareness for the disorder and even starting a foundation in their son’s name to teach school districts about autism education and provide scholarships for families with children on the spectrum.

In April 2012, I wrote a feature story for The North Star, the Blue Valley North student newspaper, about Matthew Breedlove. Writing this story taught me many valuable lessons. As I interviewed Mr. and Mrs. Breedlove, I realized that everyone is fighting unknown battles, even people whom with I come in contact daily. Talking with Mrs. Breedlove made me appreciate what I normally take for granted, to value the small miracles that each day brings. But what really stuck out to me was the advice that Mr. Breedlove passed down to me from his grandmother. When Mr. Breedlove was first struggling to cope with Matthew’s diagnosis, his grandmother surmised that he and his wife were chosen for a reason, and he told me that he believed that this was a part of a greater purpose that we all have in life. I don’t know if I believe in a greater purpose, but this advice has resonated with me throughout high school because the notion that everything happens for a reason is profoundly reassuring.

Ethan Breedlove stressed to me that Matthew isn’t any different from the rest of us. After 12 years in the Blue Valley School District, this lesson has been instilled in me by countless teachers and elementary school counselors, but it was most impactful coming from Ethan, who personally sees other kids interact with his brother. My conversation with Ethan made me think twice about how I interact with others, whether they are friends or strangers.

The Breedloves taught me that it is not enough to accept people who are “different;” no parent of an autistic child is looking for another pitying smile or condescending head nod. But what does make a difference is being empathetic and actually getting to know students of all shapes, sizes or abilities. This will prove to be a valuable lesson for me when I leave for college and a job in the future, as I adapt to new environments and understand how to interact with the new people I meet.

In Hebrew,

Tikkun Olam is a phrase that means “repairing the world,” that it is our responsibility to heal, repair, and transform it. Mr. Breedlove has taught me the virtues of resiliency and compassion, and the importance of having a strong community. On a large scale, Tikkun Olam

might mean ending famines and world-wars, but as far as I’m concerned, it means understanding how to make life a little easier for those who are struggling. Because of Mr. Breedlove, I am prepared to make a difference in my community, whether that be with families dealing with disabilities or any other challenges I face. In the dozens of hour-long conversations we’ve shared after school, Mr. Breedlove has given me advice and instilled in me values that I’ll abide by long after my high school career ends.

Danny Rosenberg, 18, of Overland Park.

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