Olathe East educator is teacher of the year

When she was in college, Tiffany Richard was pre-med, and everyone encouraged the straight-A student to become a doctor. But something changed in her junior year.

“I finally realized what I truly loved was being with students,” she said. “Being a doctor, lawyer or engineer is wonderful, but teaching is also a wonderful career.”

Richard tries to instill that same dedication to learning in her students, and the state has taken notice. Kansas Commissioner of Education Diane DeBacker announced Richard, of Olathe East School, as the state’s teacher of the year on Nov. 19.

Richard, a science and college-prep teacher, has been an educator for about 17 years and has been at Olathe East for about eight. This year she is teaching chemistry and AVID — Advancement Via Individual Determination — classes. She’s also taught biology.

“We see her more as family,” said Jamera Allen, 17. “She’s a counselor, a mom, a bunch of things to all of us.”

Richard is often a source of advice and comfort, said Allen and fellow student Garang Anyit, 18.

“She’s the first person you talk to if you need anything,” Anyit said.

She helps students with projects and homework. She works with them to figure out scholarship applications and references, sometimes even calling a school herself if it will help the student.

Richard prides herself on tailoring her lessons and teaching to individual students’ needs. Her philosophy is that all students can be successful and it’s her responsibility to figure out the way to make it happen.

“She spends a lot of time getting to know the kids and how they learn,” said Tami Brooks, mother of two and a former para educator who worked with Richard.

One of Brooks’ daughters, Jenni, has had her “favorite teacher” for several classes.

“There is never a dull moment in her class,” she said. “It’s all hands-on.”

The entire process has taken more than a year. Richard found out in October 2010 that she was the school’s nominee. From there she turned in a statement on her teaching philosophy to the district. Her classroom also was videotaped, and she submitted several essays after making it to the state level. Her application for the national teacher of the year was recently submitted, and this spring, Richard will gather in Washington, D.C., with the fellow state winners for a conference and opportunity to meet President Barack Obama.

“Probably the most exciting part is that other teachers picked me to be their representative from Olathe East,” Richard said.