2018-05-01 / Features

2018 Teachers of the Year

From preschool through high school, children are growing every second. When they first start to send out roots, it’s into soil that teachers continually nourish. When students open their first leaves of learning, teachers point them to the sunshine. And with every new grade and achievement, teachers support their students as they blossom and climb. Throughout the school years teachers tend the garden of the future with their patience, kindness, encouragement and knowledge.
For our 20th annual Teachers of the Year, we’re telling the stories of four teachers who share what all educators share:  a love of children and a love of learning. From the kindergarten classroom to the greenhouse, see how our 2018 Teachers of the Year help area students bloom.

Students In Bloom

In the greenhouse at the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology,
Joe Luther helps kids grow

By Jennifer Fabiano

A classroom filled with dirt, wood and bricks might not be the right setting for every student, but for Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology’s landscape and horticulture students, it’s the perfect place to bloom.

In one corner, a wooden pergola shades a couple of Adirondack chairs. It was built by Luther’s class for the Central PA Home & Garden Show in March. And it has a special feature that the proud teacher readily shows off to anyone who visits. “Ready to be amazed?” He flips a switch and stands back, admiring the curtain of water that falls into a small pool below, a backdrop that completes the scene.

“It’s magic,” he says, his face aglow. Of course, the real magic is in Luther’s ability to motivate and inspire his students.

But Luther, who was awarded the Carl J. Schaefer Memorial Award by the National  Occupational Competency Testing Institute in recognition of outstanding career and technical education last December, never considered being a teacher when he was younger.

“I was basically the neighborhood grass kid,” Luther says. At age 17 he started his own landscaping business and ran it full time after receiving his associate’s degree from Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport.

“I was satisfied, but looking back on it there was always something missing, and I think I found it with teaching,” Luther says. Though he had no formal training as a teacher when he started at CPI in 2009 — now he has a bachelor’s degree in workforce education and is working on a master’s — it’s his background as a business owner he credits for the way he runs his classroom today. “As a business owner you’re always teaching because you have new employees and new ways of doing things,” Luther says.

He carries this philosophy into his teaching every day, whether in his classroom, greenhouse, workshop or traveling to a competition with his students. “The ultimate goal is that I don’t want them to make the same mistakes that I did at that young age in this industry.”

Growth is an important theme in Luther’s classroom, and not just for the plants. “I want to see students grow whether it be personally, financially, just being able to get up and maintain and hold a job, that’s what I want to see,” he says. “I want these kids to have the best chance to succeed.”

Luther helps each student grow in any way he can, even if he has to employ some of his “tough love” tactics. Alexis Hassinger, a senior in the landscape and horticulture program, says Luther “helps students who might not be as expressive to put them into different competitions and get them to open up. In fact he did that with me.”

She’s referring to the time Luther signed her up for a public speaking competition without consulting her first. After much convincing, practice and encouragement, Hassinger presented her speech and came in third place at the state competition.

After the speech sparked something in her, Luther encouraged Hassinger to join Skills USA, a club focused on strengthening leadership skills; she is now its president. “If you can give them just a glimmer of hope in this great big world, you’ve done your job,” he says.

“Mr. Luther has opened my eyes and made me realize that there’s a whole world out there and most people don’t know how it works,” Hassinger says. “He taught me that the only thing holding me back was myself.”

Next month, Hassinger, whom Luther calls a “social butterfly,” will give a speech at her graduation in front of 400 people. “I would put Alexis up against anyone across the state in a speaking event now,” Luther says. “That lightbulb went off, as they say in the teaching world, and she was ready to rock and roll.” Hassinger will attend Penn College in the fall; after she gets her degree in plant production, she wants to open a combined flower and pastry shop.

Luther’s students need only watch, learn and repeat when they walk into his classroom. “He’s very confident, and very sincere, and cooperative and he’s very resourceful,” Hassinger says. “He always strives for success.” •SCM

Rhyme and Reason

In Marcie Rockey’s kindergarten classroom, students sing, dance and build a foundation for a lifetime of learning
By Jennifer Fabiano

“Who doesn’t like a song? Doesn’t singing make you happy?” The answer to the latter question, posed by kindergarten teacher Marcie Rockey, would be a unanimous “yes” in her classroom at Mount Nittany Elementary, where singing and dancing are parts of the daily routine.

“We’re always singing — we just break into song,” Rockey says. “It’s something everybody can do, no matter their ability.” And since everyone can do it, each student feels included and engaged.

Engagement is a big factor in kindergarten, where students’ minds have a tendency to drift away from the task at hand. Now in her 10th year teaching kindergarten, Rockey has found the key to capturing the attention of 5- and 6-year-olds. “You’re camouflaging learning,” Rockey says. “It’s play, but really they’re learning. You disguise it and they don’t realize it.”

In Rockey’s experience, a song can rein in and keep students’ attention better than any other tactic. The class has a different song for the months, for the holidays, for spring, for counting by 3s, counting by 2s, and because the class will make up songs on the spot, the list really is endless. “You know how people always say, ‘There’s an app for that’? Well, we always say, ‘There’s a song for that.’”

Kindergarten is the main starting point of a child’s education, so it’s a kindergarten teacher’s job to spark an inquisitiveness in each and every student, Rockey explains. “We’re building the foundation for learning and their outlook on education for the next 12 years, so we have to make it fun, make it a wonderful place to be, and self-satisfying for them, too.”

Kelly Kaplan has seen that manifest in her son, who is currently in Rockey’s class. Her son often comes home singing and will even teach the songs and dances to the rest of the family. “She knows they need to wiggle and get their energy out a little bit,” Kaplan says. Kaplan appreciates that Rockey doesn’t take the students, or herself, too seriously. “On ‘game day’ she’s playing a princess game with anyone who wants to, because she’s not above any of it.”

While Rockey’s class definitely has fun, Kaplan notes she has also seen her son grow a lot in his education. Often when they’re reading at home he’ll surprise her by saying, “I’ve got to use my pointer power and my sound power.”

“All the students in her classroom know how to be successful,” Kaplan says. “They know what they should be doing. All the students there feel very valued.”

A major theme in Rockey’s classroom is collaboration and working together, which could be a first for a student in kindergarten. “There are inappropriate habits children can form if time is not taken to teach, model and guide the appropriate way to respond to problems, to interact with peers, to self-manage,” Rockey says. That all needs to begin in kindergarten, she explains.

“Math, reading and writing are really important, but you have to learn to get along and take turns and manage yourself, too,” Rockey says.

Kaplan notices the effort Rockey puts into teaching her students personal skills. “She teaches them about how to be a good friend, what that means, and your tone of voice when you’re talking to somebody,” Kaplan says.

Collaboration does not only exist inside Rockey’s classroom, but within the community for each and every student. “Teaching isn’t a single-man job — it really takes a village,” Rockey says. “You need to collaborate with other teachers and the community. You’re not here alone.” Rockey explains that having supportive parents and administrators makes all the difference when she’s trying to positively influence the young students’ lives.

When the school bell rings at the end of the day, the thing on Rockey’s mind is always making sure students are eager to return to school the next day. “You want them to love learning and you want them to be excited to come back,” Rockey says. “That’s what we’ve been charged to do as kindergarten teachers… It’s a huge year.” •SCM

A Recipe for Success

Ron Hoover inspires students to push themselves each and every day
By Samantha Lauriello

It was 1983, Ron Hoover’s first year teaching, and tucked away in his third grade classroom were two dumbbells. Occasionally, he would bet some of his students, one of whom was Jack Tobias, that they couldn’t hold the weights straight out in front of them for a certain amount of time.

What was in it for Tobias? A refreshing glass of Tang if he was successful.

“You’d try to do it, and it was always funny, but you’d never make the time,” Tobias recalls. “You were always one second short.”

Years later, Hoover coached Tobias in high school football, and the dumbbell game continued. But even as a teenage athlete, Tobias always fell one second short of the amount of time on which the two bet.

Only then did Tobias realize “the man probably didn’t have a watch that worked,” but he also came to understand the method behind Hoover’s madness.

“That was the way he always motivated you to do a little bit better and a little bit better,” Tobias says.

“He would tell you, ‘Oh you missed it by a second,’ but he was just pushing you that little extra bit.”

Following his high school football days, Tobias went on to pursue a career in education, which he says Hoover, his longtime favorite teacher, inspired him to do.

Now, Tobias is the principal at Bald Eagle Area Middle and High School, where Hoover teaches sixth grade and continues to push his students to go the extra mile — or additional second.

“I’ve always felt that every student has the chance to be successful if you’re positive with them and you encourage them,” Hoover says.

One source of motivation has become a staple in Hoover’s classroom — pancakes.

Since his early teaching days, Hoover has made pancakes for his class on weeks that everyone turns their homework in on time, or for individual students who go above and beyond academically.

“Everybody has a chance to get a pancake if they just do their work,” Hoover says.

But his griddles are used for more than praising success. Each year, on the last day before Christmas break, Hoover organizes a breakfast for every sixth-grader in school. And planning is Hoover’s only hand in the event; the students are responsible for the cooking.

Hoover sets up stations for making eggs, bacon and much more, and each student signs up to cook an item, turning the classrooms into a full-service buffet.

“The kids love it because they’re involved in it,” Hoover says. “They’re not just getting served breakfast.”

The annual buffet is one way Hoover encourages his students to work as a team, but outside the classroom, he’s also been a multi-sport coach for over 30 years.

“Coaching is like teaching,” he says. “It’s motivating students and motivating athletes to be successful and give their best effort every day.”

Having coached football, basketball and track and field at varying age levels, Hoover has delved deep into the school community.

“The guy has been involved in about every sports program that’s in existence in our area. He volunteers with youth programs, youth soccer, football, basketball,” Tobias says. “I just think he’s touched countless lives throughout the years.”

During Hoover’s time as head football coach, his team would wear matching polos and khaki pants to away games. At the start of one season, four of his players came to him to say they didn’t have khaki pants the day before the game.

That night, Hoover made a trip to Target to buy pants for his players.

“I’m going through the line at Target, and the lady checking me out says, ‘These are all different sizes,’” Hoover recalls.

Hoover explained the situation, and the manager gave him 25 percent off. A man behind him in line pitched in on the total cost as well.    

It’s taking that extra effort that Tobias sees as the coach and teacher’s true strength. “I think that’s what makes him so successful as a teacher,” he says. “You’re not just another student. He knows more about you than just what’s in the classroom; he knows you as a person.” •SCM

The Child Whisperer

Friends School’s Michelle Raney models peace and integrity
By Samantha Lauriello

In Michelle Raney’s first year teaching kindergarten and first grade, she worked diligently with a student who was a struggling reader. The young girl was determined to master the fundamentals of spelling and pronunciation, but her valiant efforts would often lead to frustration.
Then came one of the most memorable moments of Raney’s career as a teacher.

While reading alongside Raney and a fellow student, the young girl noticed her peer was experiencing reading frustrations similar to those she had been striving to overcome. The girl was then able to help her classmate work through the roadblock, and Raney watched her transform from a struggling reader into an excelling reader.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” Raney says. “I think the most powerful part was that my struggling reader recognized in herself in that moment that she was a reader and was able to help in ways that other kids had helped her a lot in the past.”

There have been other moments as well, ones that have brought laughter instead of tears, such as when Raney was teaching her class how to make salsa and one student put a hot pepper seed up her nose.
The student’s face turned as red as the tomatoes on the table in front of her, and she immediately blew it out of her nose, Raney says with a chuckle.

Since her first year at State College Friends School in 2012, Raney’s teaching career has been characterized by moments like these that she’s shared with her kindergartners and first-graders.

“For me, I think one of the most important things at this age is that they just have this love of learning,” Raney says, “and that they’re learning to love learning, not just learning to learn because they have to.”

At Friends School, one way Raney instills a love of learning upon her students is through traditional Quaker values.

Simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship are “the roots of what we do,” Raney says.

These things can be practiced in many scenarios. At recess, when a child feels like something that happened during a game was unfair, Raney takes the time to speak with them and explain how they can use their integrity to ease the situation.

Raney uses these values to accomplish her goals as a teacher as well. “I want a classroom where kids feel safe, they feel significant and they feel like they belong,” she says.

The words “child whisperer” are thrown around quite often when parents and faculty talk about Raney’s teaching ability.

“When you meet her, she just has such a calming presence,” says Jackie Elliot, who has two children who had Raney for both kindergarten and first grade. “I think at that age that’s so important.”

Raney says if a teacher gets loud, students will only get louder, which is why she lowers her voice to a whisper to get her class’s attention.

“I think she’s the epitome of what a kindergarten teacher should be,” Elliot says. “She just has this quiet strength.”

Raney demonstrates strength in other areas of her life as well, such as when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. On two occasions following surgery, Raney had to explain her condition to her class.

“I talked about how there’s this organ in my body, and I said it’s shaped like a butterfly, and I said it’s something that my body isn’t using in the right way, and so it needs to go away,” Raney recalls. “I wanted them to know it was going to be OK. I didn’t want them to be scared.”

After Raney explained her situation, some children opened up about their own experiences with illness and others helped her with strenuous tasks around the classroom, turning the experience into a lesson in empathy.

“My hope and dream for teaching and for the kids is that they feel comfortable and happy coming to school,” Raney says. “The mechanics of how writing works and knowing your math facts are really important, and I think those things will come if the kids feel like they belong.” •SCM

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