Sunday, August 30, 2015

Student made a Difference in Life of a Teacher

Every student needs an advocate. Even the ones who get a bit mouthy, challenge you, and bounce all over the room with ideas. When I student taught in the fall of 1988 in a small rural town outside of Newton, Kansas, I encountered such a kid. 

He’d gotten into some trouble in his hometown school so he attended nearby Halstead. He was personable, witty, and smart. His name was Steve Elliott. 

Steve was a part of a small group of freshman I taught from the Class of 1992. 

They were a rowdy bunch, unlike the sophomores and juniors that I taught under my main cooperating teacher, Lois Loflin. 

She's the one who suggested that I also teach freshman—that way my certification would be valid for upper elementary.

I am certified 5-12 English, rarely seen now days. It means I don’t do cutesy bulletin boards, but I know grammar and a bit about Shakespeare and poetry to the point where I might be able to get a 10-year-old, as well as a 10th grader, interested in it. And since I’m a secondary English major, I am a comma fiend. 

So in addition to Loflin, I had a freshman class under a different teacher. They talked while the teacher was talking, bickered with each other, and seemed uninterested in learning. It was a rowdy bunch.

Maybe all freshmen are like this, but I don't know because I have not taught the age group since.

One can about imagine what happened when it came time for me to take over the teaching duties with the freshmen. I was the young thing, not even taller than most of them, and what did I know about teaching English. I also knew my supervising teacher from my college would be judging me on classroom management. So when I tried to break their chatty habits, I was met with resistance. Eventually, things got better, and I'm sure glad this cooperating teacher supported me.


One day.

There was a sub. A sub that thought she was in charge.

I was doing a punctuation review game, but this sub went into armed-guard mode. Her helicopter monitoring of the students turned them inside out. The kids rebelled, talked back to her, and bucked me. They'd never quite acted that way before--even with their regular teacher, so this shocked me.

I went home that Friday never wanting to return even though my classes under Loflin were going fine. The progress I'd made with the freshmen, thanks to the help of this cooperating teacher, was all undone that day by a sub that didn't know how far they'd come, and they felt like she nitpicked their behavior.

I wasn't sure how I was going to get through another couple months with those freshmen. Come Monday, I made a gutsy move. I told my cooperating teacher what happened with the sub and suggested that we split the class. I'd teach half and he'd teach the other half. He'd use my lesson plans, so that way he'd still know if I was on track with the content.

I made a list of the challenging students and split them up. We did a lottery system for the rest. And since I took what I thought he would see as some of the biggest stinkers, he agreed. We found an available room for me to teach them in, and he stayed in his classroom to teach the other half.

the freshmen ~ Steve is third from the right

It was with this small group of freshmen that I really connected with Steve. He made me feel like I was okay. That I could make it as a teacher. That my expectations of their behavior weren't out of line. That I could show a little bit of my sense of humor and maintain management of the classroom.

I would survive. And they would learn.

My student teaching days were coming to an end, but I didn't know if I still wanted to teach.

Until one day shortly before Christmas at the end of the term, I received a note from Vickie, Steve's mom.

It was written on a piece of blue scratch paper.

the note

Vickie's words helped shape my future.

I did get to meet Vickie when I attended Steve's wrestling meet. In fact, I got to spend an early Thanksgiving with them one year at their home. I made a trip to see Steve perform in the school play too.

And one school year, he made the journey to Cheney for me to help him with his research paper. It was during that visit he suggested we take a break and run to Wichita, so we went to Towne West Mall.

He wore his Bart Simpson shirt with the character giving the bird. I told him to close his jacket and he refused, so I walked on the other side of the mall from him in fear that a Cheney board member would see me walking with him. I never really ever went out of teacher mode with him.

Throughout the years, we've managed to stay in touch. He wrote me letters about his high school crushes, commented on the news of the day, and when he got engaged to his first wife, my sister Brenda went to Tulsa with me so I could meet her.

Years passed. Sometimes I'd get a phone call or a letter. Then a couple years ago we reconnected on Facebook. In 2013, when we were in Omaha for my niece Suzanne's wedding, we met up for lunch. I met his wife Barbie and two children.

And this summer, we had an impromptu get-together at his mom's in Burrton one afternoon—one in which he corrected my grammar.

Whenever I get to be around him, it's like time hasn't passed. He’s the same Steve. What you see is what you get. What he's up to will always matter to me.

Steve with me, summer 2015

We hear stories all the time about a teacher who helped turn a kid around.

With me, it was the other way around.

My heart knows that I would not be a teacher today had it not been for Steve Elliott and his mom.

The year after I taught Steve, I encountered a few more like him. Students in a classroom of my own. Kids who made me feel like I could do the job.

And do it for a long time.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Web's Lifesaving Personality Touches Many

The landscape of my work place, our school, has changed in more ways than one. Besides a big renovation, a beloved coach and teacher and an uncle-type figure of mine has retired. I won't hear "Mornin' Sunshine," his nickname for me, the gal who coached middle school girls' basketball with him for eight terrific years. I won't see his arms swaying as he walks to the gym with his jingling set of keys. I won't see him patting a kid on the back or putting his arm around someone for comfort. We will see him around town though, as the newest addition to the City of Cheney work crew.

Welcome again, Circle of Life guest blogger, Amy Wallace, as she shares what made her connection to Randy Weber extra special.

Web's Lifesaving Personality Touches Many
Guest Post by Amy Wallace

In the Circle of Life, many things are inevitable. Change is one of those things. You know it is a part of life, but it’s hard.

This is a tribute to my friend Randy, who is retiring after 41 years of teaching. 

Randy began his career in 1977 in Zenda, Kansas. There, he taught alongside another recent college graduate by the name of Casey Jones. Casey grew up in Kingman and is my uncle. Once Randy stayed at my grandparent's house in Kingman when stranded in a snowstorm.

Randy Weber (photo courtesy of USD 268)
In 1979 Randy moved to the job in Cheney. I first worked with him when I was the curriculum director at Cheney in 2001.

We quickly made the association to my uncle, and it was fun to have someone in Cheney with an instant connection to my family.

I didn’t see Randy every day back then, but when I did, he always greeted me with “What’s in your Wallace!” It was a twist off the Capital One commercial that was popular then, and it always ended with “what’s in your wallet.” (Click here for an ad with the phrase).

That was Randy’s specialty—nicknames for everyone. When I became principal at Cheney Middle School three years later, he told he needed a more professional nickname for me. From then on I was "Miss Aim."

As a teacher, Randy has all those skills that can’t be taught to teachers in training. First, he loves kids. He loves middle school kids. You simply can’t teach a person how to do that.

Weber & basketball player Reanna Woodard in 2003
He worked hard to connect with kids and get to know them. By doing this, he motivated them in ways we would never think possible.

As a colleague, Randy was the best kind. I counted on him to do anything that was needed. If I needed a class covered, he was there. Needed someone to take an extra duty? Work an event? No problem. Come early, stay late, clean a toilet. Absolutely anything.

And he never expected anything in return.

To a principal, this kind of person on your staff is a lifesaver. We can’t survive without people like Randy around because something always needs to be done. 

As a friend, Randy always had time. When something was wrong, he could tell, and he would never hesitate to check in on you.

Several years ago I was struggling with a difficult pregnancy and missing a lot of work. I walked into the school after being gone several days. There was Randy ready with a big hug.

Over the years we shared many stories about family. Cars that didn’t run, boats that didn’t work, and everything in between. Even though I didn’t spend much time with his family, I felt like I knew them from all the stories he shared.

I’m thankful he taught my two oldest children. Even though he never taught my youngest, he's always had a special connection with Lizzy. When she was born, he and his wife Christine gave her a ladybug blanket that she still uses daily—and she is seven. Lizzy remembers very well that it was from Mr. Weber. He also always had a treat in his pocket for her whenever he saw her—a fruit snack or a mint.

Several years ago Randy came across some old, grubby life jackets. Randy doesn’t like to throw things away, so he brought them to me and threw them in the back of my truck. They were junk. And for several days, as a little game, we took turns throwing them back and forth into each others' vehicles.

Being the pitcher that I am, I eventually headed straight to the dumpster with them but gave it some thought, and I kept one. As I stared at that life preserver, I realized it symbolized everything Randy was to me as a friend and a colleague.

I decided to save one for Randy’s retirement. I'd planned to talk about him in front of the staff and present Randy with that life jacket as a token of everything he had meant to Cheney, to Cheney Middle School, and to me.

But Randy didn't want a big celebration where he'd listen to people pay tribute to him and then have to give a speech himself.

In his words he wanted to “sneak out the back door.”

And we will honor that, but I will find a way sometime soon to get that life jacket to him. His friendship, his servicea lifesaver to me and many others.

Did Coach Randy Weber give you a nickname? How did he serve as your life preserver? Or, for those who read the blog and don't know Randy, do you have a person that embodies the lifesaver concept like Randy did?

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Fun-Loving Pranks Preserve Teacher's Memory

School is about to start. As a teacher, I have many fond memories and only a handful of nightmares of my interactions with young people.

The Class of 1996 holds the record for well-meaning pranks. One involved the beloved Mr. Smiley Face Man.

He was the lid of an old plastic container that I kept inside my podium. If a student seemed to pout about something, didn't like that I said no or was upset about a wrong answer or another student, I'd flash Mr. Smiley Face Man at him. No words. Just flashed the yellow-faced lid his way by placing it in the air, putting it in front of my face, or walking it over to the student. Worked every time.

Until one day, I arrived at school and found a ransom note.

Mr. Smiley Face Man had been kidnapped!

I think the lid was returned, but hey, maybe it wasn't because I cannot find it anymore. I would certainly not trash an icon from my early teaching years. I don't recall paying the ransom of three Jolly Ranchers either. 

See, for those of you who think I have a great memory, this one escapes me. Maybe the three kidnappers, now grown men, need to remind me how the case was solved.

The culprits? I only remember two for sure: Kevin Giefer and Cody Ast.

Who else was in on it? Todd Davidson was one of their sidekicks. Could have been Jason Gregory, now on the local school board. Or maybe it was the fella who is now the activities director, Todd Hague.

I pumped Kevin recently for information. He wouldn't budge, or maybe he's old like me and forgot.

And yes, that's the original ransom note in the picture above. It's kept in my pie-safe bookcase that I wrote about here.

as 7th graders, the Class of 1996 in Cheney, Kansas

Another incident occurred with this crew that again proves I have a sense of humor, a must for teaching pre-teens.

One time after lunch, I returned to the classroom. I had my cup of iced tea with a straw. I set it on my desk and returned to the podium to continue whatever I'd been teaching. The class seemed extra quiet, but I didn't think anything of it because sometimes 12-year-olds get in little tiffs at lunch as to who talked to whom, who sat by whom, and who's going where.

I approached the podium. On my open bindera pile of poop.

Yes, a pile of human-sized excrement.

At first I thought of the two eighth graders we'd caught stabbing pencils into the ceiling during a study hall period Paula Voth and I shared. Did they do this? Their parents were contacted about their vandalism, and the two were given detentions. It didn't seem like a big deal: kids screwed up, parents agreed, kids paid consequences, end of story. So them retaliating by pooping on my podium didn't make sense.

Besides, how could a person get their poop so neatly placed on my binder? Did they actually squat up there and do it? Because it sure looked fresh, and it sure didn't look like it had been moved. No smear marks anywhere.

I stood there stunned. I didn't dare look up at the class because I had no clue how I was going to handle this.

A faint male voice finally said, "It's not real, Miss Hofer."

I took a deep breath. "Oh, it isn't?" I said.

I continued to stare at it. The class remained fairly quiet, for they didn't know how I was going to react.

Cheney Class of 1996 as 8th Graders

I grabbed my straw from my iced tea and poked it. "But it looks so real, " I said. "There are even wrinkles and creases in it." I bent down and looked at it from various viewpoints.

I poked it again. And again. The class began a low chuckle now as a reaction to my reservations. I still wasn't looking at them, but I was relieved.

I picked up the binder, walked it to the trashcan, and tipped it so the fake feces slid into the garbage. I don't remember what I did with the straw.

I returned to the podium area, and with a deep breath, I finally looked at the 20-some eyes who'd been staring at me and holding their breaths.

"Whew, I'm glad that wasn't real," I said. We all started laughing.

Then the culprit, the owner of the plastic poop, stood up. He dug it out of the trash and said, "I bought this when we were on vacation in Colorado. I begged to buy it." 

The culprit? Kevin Giefer. 

Then the students all retold how I came in the room and reacted to it. We all laughed pretty hard.

Kevin's antics make for good memories, don't they? So, here's one more.

He used to bug me that I wore granny shoes, so the creative writing booklet was named after him that school year. I dubbed it Granny's Memoirs.

Was this the same class the Uthe sisters and I played a joke on? I think so. More about that another time.

This was the Class of 1996.

Twenty-plus years ago, they walked into my classroom as my second set of seventh graders. I taught them for two years in literature and then again in high school public speaking.

They taught me it was okay to smile before Thanksgiving.

Did you play harmless pranks on your teachers? Or, maybe you're the teacher. Share how you've recovered from some fun-loving student jokes.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Adult Reflections of Life with Grandma Katie

I only knew one of my grandparents, Grandma Katie, my mom's mother. 

Her husband was Jacob B. Hofer. Yes, my mom was a Hofer before she married my dad—and they were not related. And those middle initials were just that, initials. Usually given for a parent's name. 

Grandma Katie, Aunt Bina, Grandpa Jacob
Grandma Katie lived with us when I was in lower elementary school. We did not get along one bit. She was an old lady who had a rough life and mainly spoke German in the Hutterisch dialect. 

She'd race me to the one bathroom in the house and get mad when I beat her to it, slurp her food, and leave pee droplets on the toilet that she rarely flushed.

And me? I was a cantankerous snot.

Dad enjoys telling the story of me throwing a fit one time at the dinner table. I got down on the floor, laid on my back, shook my fists and legs in the air and screamed. Grandma Katie said to him, "Hit her on the ass."

Dad said he thought he heard her wrong, so he asked her what she said and she repeated it. Then he scolded her, "Grandma, we don't use such language in this house." 

He said that Grandma shrugged her shoulders and put her hands up and innocently replied, "Doesn't seem so bad to me. She got a ass."

Bad grammar and all. That's how she responded.

Katie & Jacob, my mom's parents
And it was true. We didn't use language like that, and I did I need a good spanking.

Maybe that's why I irritated Grandma Katie so much. She thought I needed more discipline. But my parents did believe in spanking (one time I threw Dad's watch and boy did I get it).

I do have a couple of fond memories of Grandma Katie though. She would share her dried fruit with me that she got on birthdays and at Christmas.

I guess that's the reason I eat like a little old lady, for I enjoy tasty prunes, dates, and dried apricots, dried cherries, and the like.

One time I was home alone with Grandma in the evening. I watched her count her money in her coin purse. She would often go in her room in the middle of the day and close the door. Mom said she was counting her money. 

Then she told me a tornado story. She claimed they had to shut a rooftop door, certainly not a sky light window but something like that, and they saw the twister up in the sky.

I don't remember enough of the details to say she was fictionalizing this for my young ears or if it really happened.

That is the fondest memory I have of my Grandma Katie. In fact, it's the only conversation I remember having with her. 

Grandma Katie laughing with Mom
When I shared that with my students this school year, one of the boys said, "I feel sorry for you." I assured him that I had three aunts that spoiled me to make up for not having a grandma who made me chocolate chip cookies.

Maybe that's why being an aunt has always been a big deal to me.

I never saw Grandma Katie in a pair of pants; she always wore dresses. Always covered her head with a scarf when in church. And she wore bloomers. Real bloomers. 

She had her quirks too. The night before a trip to town, she'd set out her coat with her purse all ready to go. My mom was similar, a planner. I can't say that I am not like that. Young eyes are impressionable.

She enjoyed sitting outside with a flyswatter and killing any bugger that got close enough.

She'd yell at the television when her soap opera characters were stupid. She'd say, "He'll get his." Can't say that I don't do the same thing. I do talk to the TV whether it's the characters, politicians, or basketball players. Young ears are impressionable.

Grandma Katie's maiden name was Kleinsasser, and she was her husband's second wife. Jacob B. Hofer had been married before, to Katie's sister, but she'd died.

Grandpa passed away when my mom was nearly 15-years-old. Grandma had an auction and sold all they owned. And when she paid all their debts, all she had left was $40.

Forty Dollars.

Forty Dollars to your name. In 1940.

Probably why she always counted the money in that coin purse of hers. That'd be only $670 in 2015 according to That would barely pay one month's rent in some places today.

Aunt Bina, Aunt Grace, & my mom Stella with their mother
So Katie moved from the country into Doland with daughters Bina and Stella, my mom. Read more about my mom here.

Aunt Grace, her other daughter, was already married. Aunt Bina worked at the Red Owl grocery story, and while in high school, my mom worked at the cafe.

Grandma Katie picked turkey and geese for Walt Hofer of Doland who owned a produce company. She didn't have a car, so people would have to take her to work. She also painted and shocked bundles.

Dad said people in those days would take a jug of water and sew a gunnysack tightly around it to insulate it. After one shock was bundled, they'd set the jug inside to keep it out of the sun. After a hard day of work, Grandma told Dad she would say, "My feet didn't carry me home. I had to drag 'em home." 

Later, after Aunt Bina married Jean Board, Grandma lived with them for many years. In her later years, Mom agreed to take her in, for Aunt Grace had taken care of her mother-in-law, so my mom only thought it was fair to take her turn looking after an aging parent.

Dad's office moved to an upstairs room and my parents made a bedroom for Grandma downstairs. She had her privacy on the west side of the house. Thus began the days of me annoying Grandma, for I remember her often saying in plain English, "Quit looking at me" when my little eyes would stare at the old woman in front of me.

Grandma Katie with five of her great-grandkids:
Jessica, Evelynn, Michael, Colleen & Suzanne
The Huron Nursing Home was her residence for her last ten years or so. Mom visited her mother each Saturday when we went in for piano lessons. She'd take her sugarless candy, for she had diabetes, and dried fruit. Sometimes Grandma would get a second visit that week if we'd be in town on Sunday after church.

When I see pictures of Grandma Katie and a picture of me where I'm pretty intense and not smiling, I look just like her. I inherited her long face and her pouty, down-turned lips.

She lived to a ripe age of 92 and died the spring of my senior year in 1984. She would have been 124-years-old this July 29, 2015. Oh, how the world has changed since her passing 31 years ago, let alone her birth in 1891.

I'm sure she'd say I still need a good swattin' because I do a pretty good job of carrying her disposition sometimes, and when that happens, I'm known to say, "I'm grumpy."

I'm thankful I got to watch my mother faithfully take care of her mother in those later years. What an example of love that was, for I never heard Mom complain or send an angry word her way. Never.

Have you ever had a cantankerous relative to deal with? Or maybe it was you? Any fond memories of old people you barely remember?