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Justin Barnes

Top Teachers

Recognizing Omaha’s Best Educators

In honor of National Teacher  Appreciation Day and in recognition of our own Teacher Appreciation Day this Saturday, May 11, 6 p.m. at Aksarben Village, The Reader reached out to the Learning Community school districts to get the names of teachers recognized for their hard work, dedication and effectiveness. Here is just a small sampling of the educators who help shape our children’s growth and the future of our community.

Michelle Phillips

Some people intrinsically recognize their lives’ calling from an early age. They may flirt with other callings and professions, but the one they’re meant to be doing lies close beneath the surface, there all the while, silently reinforcing the path they will one day tread. Dundee Elementary fifth-grade teacher Michelle Phillips is one such individual. She drives in from her West Omaha home everyday, lesson plan in tow and tries to find a way to connect with students; to engage young learners who might rather be fiddling with a smart-phone or running ragged on the playground equipment on the other side of the classroom window.

“My Mom’s a teacher so I suppose that was always in the back of my mind. In college I started with advertising and journalism and I was sitting there one day thinking I can’t do this but teaching is definitely something I can do everyday,” says Phillips, who received her undergraduate degree from UNL and her Master’s from UNO.

Phillips, who as an Omaha Public Schools 5th grade teacher is in charge of her students’ entire curriculum, is one of three Nebraska finalists for the prestigious 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She was also recently honored as a finalist at the Nebraska Association of Teachers of Mathematics Fall Conference last September. The Presidential Award has been given out since 1983 and is the nation’s highest honor for teachers of math and science.

“My approach has always been to try and have engaging lessons,” Phillips says of her lesson plans. “We do some competitive type things, like ‘American Math Idol.’ The kids have to present a problem with a scene; they’ve done underwater or even where one was a pre-school teacher. I also try to do a lot of real world application. For one lesson, I videotaped my front and backyard and gave the kids $500 to revamp one side. They used geometry to figure out the area then also had to come up with a budget.”

After being nominated for the Presidential Award by a colleague, Phillips went through a fairly extensive and expensive application process. Among other tasks, she had to speak to five different dimensions of her teaching using certain topics students traditionally had difficulty understanding (for instance, in geometry, when to use volume, perimeter, etc.) and then videotape a lesson to show how she works through the difficulties.

With children being inundated with information on all technological fronts, the daily duties of an elementary teacher are becoming more exhaustive. Instructors are forced to think outside the box in incorporating things like the Internet into their respective lesson plans.

“We’re able to access so much more these days,” she says. “The kids have more resources and we have more resources. We did a math project where they have to plan and budget a summer vacation. Online they’re able to price flights and look at different cities’ visitors websites to plan things. We also took part in something called The Global Read Along Project. Fifth graders from all around the world read the same book and then interact online in all sorts of different ways. People took part all across the U.S. and we even had a group in France and some in the Middle East.”

Technology has provided some amazing tools for today’s schoolchildren, but it is teachers like Phillips who bring these lessons to fruition and who, in doing so, create yet another generation of curious knowledge-seekers.

“I love working with children,” Phillips says. “Kids at this age are old enough to where they kind of figured out who they are, they’re also independent enough to do their own thing and they’re still young enough that they enjoy being taught, they enjoy the teaching. If you’re excited, they’re excited.”

—Jesse Stanek

Mary Focht

After an 18-year career with Bryan High School, Mary Focht is scheduled to retire this month. The beloved instructor, a Lincoln native, was the only English as a Second Language instructor at Bryan High School for her first three years starting in 1995, a position she obtained after earning her graduate degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

According to Focht, she has seen a lot of changes throughout her teaching career over the years. As a destination city for an influx of immigrants from all over the world, Omaha has brought kids from many cultures and backgrounds to her cozy classroom at Bryan.

Focht’s classes, most of which have students representing at least five languages, are filled with eager students ready to learn not just English but a plethora of other subjects. “We have done three Shakespeare plays this semester,” Focht says, “including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth.” With a laugh, Focht admits that her students even want to do a fourth before the end of the year, something she is proud of because she wants them to be familiar with literature. Focht recognizes that this is amazing and although they don’t understand it all, she still pushes them.

“I am an old fashioned teacher. I expect them to work really hard,” admits Focht. The educator is also adamant about teaching the principle of respect among the students in her classroom. “I have Hindus, I have Muslims, I have Christians and they all seem to get along in my classroom because my rule is respect.” 

Focht’s passion for helping her students is reflected in her work. Focht indicates that “the kids really need you and they depend on you, so you are kind of a counselor and a social worker all rolled into one, sometimes you even have to be an advocate for them,” something Focht is more than willing to do.

Focht recalls that one particular student by the name of Joe thrived in her classroom. The sixteen year old young man immigrated to the United States from Mexico with his brothers after his mother died. Being the youngest of fourteen, “he didn’t have a mom, he didn’t have a dad and he kind of needed some nurturing,” she recalls. Focht’s two children informally adopted Joe and he became “part of the family.” With her guidance, the student was able to graduate from Bryan, later obtained a scholarship to Bellevue University and eventually graduated from college. Focht was extremely proud when she had the pleasure of attending his college graduation. “You remember all of those good kids that hung in there,” she said, and “they make it worth it.”

Focht is not only a role model in the classroom but also serves as an example in the community. In October 2012, the Barrientos Scholarship Foundation recognized Mary Lynn Focht with the honor of the Lifetime Achievement Award. According to Marcos Mora, the original founder and current executive director of the foundation, “Ms. Focht is just one fine example of a leader that has committed herself to giving back to the community.”

“I was just surprised and absolutely honored and thrilled,” said Focht. The recognition motivates Focht to keep going; in fact, she can be found at the Siena Francis House, a charity she visits to serve dinner for those in need, almost every week. Focht also volunteers for her church often.

Although she will be retiring soon, Focht will still have plenty to keep her busy. She has plans to volunteer for refugee programs and is going to look into getting involved with Lutheran Family Services so she can help welcome refugees to Omaha and teach them English.

Focht’s trajectory is an amazing one and she will truly be missed at Bryan. “It has been a good run. I have enjoyed most of it,” she says, adding “most of it has been pretty happy and positive.”

—Liz Codina

Angela Mosier

“I’m not in this for awards,” Angela Mosier says when talking about the honor of becoming Nebraska’s Teacher of the Year. Mosier, a high school math teacher and math department chairwoman at Westside Community Schools, has been teaching since 1999.

Mosier, an Illinois native, moved to Omaha to attend the University of Nebraska at Omaha after her father was transferred here. She graduated with both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in secondary education. She also has a national board certification in early adolescence mathematics. Her first passion was art, and she originally wanted to be a cartoonist. Mosier’s original goal was to declare a dual major in art and mathematics, but ultimately she chose to focus on mathematics and physics because “it’s something I felt comfortable with.”

Her interest in teaching began when she was in high school and she realized that although she was a good student, she had to work hard to get good grades. She had a passion for mathematics and science and also enjoyed helping friends who were struggling with the subjects.

In October Mosier was selected by a panel of Nebraska educators to be Nebraska Teacher of the Year. The process began in May 2012 when she was approached by a district representative. She was asked to complete a questionnaire which would help get her name submitted for a list of awards. In May she was told she was in the final four. Mosier then had to teach a lesson and answer questions from the panel. In January she had the chance to meet the other teachers from around the country, and this weekend they were all invited to a luncheon at the White House with the President. “It was really the trip of a lifetime,” Mosier says. “It was a lot of fun to see everyone again.”

Mosier has a unique approach to teaching that has set her apart. She likes to draw pictures and “think outside the box,” showing students that mathematics can actually be fun. It’s an approach that isn’t used often in math, which can be a difficult subject for some students to grasp. She often changes styles to help an individual student. “You have to change techniques for each student and their needs,” she says.

Her techniques often reach past her lessons. “As a teacher you’re not just in the classroom,” she says. “I try to talk to the students every day and get involved in their lives.” She does this by asking about activities they may have had planned for the weekend or school events such as sports. She personally started two clubs at Westside High School, the quiz bowl team and the math honor society. Often students will commune in her office, sit on the couch and talk with her, whether it’s about their lives or simply issues with their classes. “It’s about letting them know you care.”

For all of her unique tools, Mosier is the first to admit that she gains the most from the other teachers she works with. “I like to push myself,” she says.

Mosier feels that one of the biggest issues facing educators, schools and especially students now is the gap between high achieving students and students who struggle. Her goal has become helping to bridge this gap.

She wants to do this by pushing high achievers to continue pushing themselves and helping students who have difficulties by looking at and assessing their problems. “All students need to be given a fair shot,” says Mosier.

Mosier calls this year’s honor a “humbling” experience and says her ultimate goal is to help Nebraska’s students and teachers grow. “I want to be a representative for all the teachers,” she says. “I want to learn things and bring that back to the state. I always think about a student and where they might end up in 10 or 15 years.”

—Tressa Eckermann

Ryan Cinfel

Imagine the look on Neihardt Elementary teacher Ryan Cinfel’s face when, upon entering his classroom one cold December morning, he was greeted by local radio station Star 104.5 and news station KMTV3. Cinfel was nominated by one of his student’s parents as Teacher of the Week, yet he had no idea he would win. It was a complete surprise. After all, he was just doing his job, something he’s been passionate about since high school.

“During my junior and senior years, I had two free class periods. During those times, I chose to help our only male elementary teacher. He taught kindergarten as well as K-6 gym,” Cinfel explains. “Throughout the 2 years, I was also able to help in his classroom. I looked forward to working with him every day and it carried over right into college. I enrolled at Wayne State College in elementary education. As I started completing some practicum time, I always ended up in the kindergarten rooms, and I loved the energy and excitement of the students at that age. From there, I added my early childhood endorsement and finished my degree.”

Cinfel grew up in Clarkson, Neb., graduated from Clarkson High School and completed his undergraduate degree at Wayne State College. He’s currently working through a Master’s degree at Wayne. As a kindergarten teacher, Cinfel helps shape each child from the very beginning of his or her educational career. While he has subbed at other schools before, including high school classes, he prefers teaching children at a younger age.

“In kindergarten, you have the chance to really see how quickly kids can learn and grow. Each and every day, I am able to make a difference in their education, and in their lives in general,” he says. “I love seeing the students outside of school, too, by going to watch them while they play sports and other activities. I get to be another role model for all of them. Knowing that I get the chance to have a direct impact on a group of kids each day makes my job so worthwhile.” 

While teaching inevitably has its challenges, Cinfel finds that even the hardest aspects about his job are the most rewarding.

“Each student comes in at a different level with different strengths and needs,” he says. “Adjusting my teaching and staying ahead of the game is extremely important to guarantee that I am meeting the needs of each student. When the students are successful throughout the year, you can see the extra work paying off.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get frustrated with the current school system.

“I would like the educational system to raise the focus on students as individuals,” he continues. “With NCLB and all the standardized testing, we lose sight of the unique needs of each student. We are working to get students to meet or exceed cutoff scores instead of giving all children the material they need in a format that will allow them to learn best. As teachers, we are always trying to meet the specific needs of our students, but that becomes difficult with the testing expectations put on our classes.”

Having a teacher as dedicated as Cinfel is something every child should have the privilege of experiencing. Sadly, not every child gets that experience. However, with more teachers like him, there just may be a chance in the future.

“I hope that each of my students leaves my classroom knowing that they can do whatever they set their mind to,” Cinfel concludes. “I know they are young, but I do my best to make sure each student has a broad set of tools and a passion for learning to help throughout their life. Lastly, I hope that my students are fully aware that I am behind them 100%, even after they leave my classroom.”

—Kyle Eustice

posted at 06:59 pm
on Wednesday, May 08th, 2013

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