Six teachers making a difference

Photo by John F. Russell

Six teachers making a difference

Six teachers making a difference

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— Talk to any teacher about their line of work long enough and it invariably comes out - they're not in it for the money.

And certain teachers, the ones who really entrench themselves in the lives of their students, push the workweek to its logical limit outside of the classroom, as well. In Colorado's wide-open Western Slope, that means not just going the extra mile, but going many extra miles with time spent traveling with sports teams and extracurricular clubs and activities.

The desire to connect, to inspire and to shape how young men and women apply themselves and think critically about the world around them fuels the passion in some of the best teachers. Routt County benefits from the tireless efforts of a long list of dedicated teachers full of that extra-mile moxie.

Before the daylight hours shorten and the next school year arrives, At Home spent some time with six of the county's many extraordinary educators.

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Genie Love

'Delicate balance'

Genie Love, Steamboat Springs High School

Genie Love has found that crucial level of student connection.

"High school kids are so real, you can connect with their hopes and fears about the future at a point where they're trying to figure out who they are and what they want out of life," said Love, a Pennsylvania native who didn't really figure out what she wanted until after earning a bachelor's degree in physical therapy.

But the PT work, specifically helping those suffering from brain injuries, hinted at where she eventually would find her Steamboat niche.

"No two people will have the same treatment, so you try different things," Love said. "Special ed is similar in trying to figure out what will work with different students that given day and trying different strategies."

After starting as a paraprofessional in fall 2002, Love stuck with it and began working as a resource special education teacher in the 2004-05 academic year, all while earning her teaching license through a Western State College of Colorado one-year program.

Now she's responsible for supervising the paraprofessionals while supporting the department students with the most significant educational and behavioral needs, tracking them across eight classes and a host of different teachers.

"Our job is difficult anyway because we're teaching students that have difficulties," said Karen Dingle, who has taught in the department for 12 years. "But to supervise adults, too, and to pull together that type of communication is something else. She has a good rapport with the kids, knowing when to support and when to back off - it's a delicate balance of encouragement."

Assistant principal Kevin Taulman noted the above-and-beyond nature of a "very dedicated professional" who serves on a number of committees and spearheads programs like this year's "Social Think Tank" - a factor that helped tip the scales as Love earned the high school's 2008 Teacher of the Year award.

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Shawn Sigstedt

Deep roots

Shawn Sigstedt, Colorado Mountain College Alpine Campus

Shawn Sigstedt has "ameliorated the crisis," and that's always a great feeling.

Crisis means the planetary extinction of a unique plant with a range of untapped pharmacological properties. Ligusticum porteri, commonly known as Osha, is the enigmatic species Sigstedt has delved into, unlocking solutions to this conservation crisis while developing synergy between his research and his classroom.

Before studying biology at Colorado College and completing graduate work at Harvard University, Sigstedt spent seven years living in Navajo and Hopi communities, where he discovered the medicinal importance of the herbaceous perennial root used for a local anesthetic and a cure for stomach ailments. The next 35 years spent studying the plant allowed Sigstedt to finally develop it from seeds on his research ranch outside of Steamboat.

Sigstedt's own local roots go back over four generations, and with Osha already flourishing naturally in the Yampa Valley, Sigstedt also sees Steamboat as the prime location to cultivate its survival and his ongoing USDA grant-funded research.

But before he elaborates on the economic windfall of this potential cash crop, CMC's only full-time biology professor focuses on "a whole other thing that's more exciting."

That's sharing his passion for conservation with his students, working on a project to help them journal indigenous species and upload the information to an international database.

"It gives a legal precedent to every species, and if students have involvement with those species at a grass-roots level, they'll feel it's worth protecting," Sigstedt said. "Osha, my life work, is just a model of how you can save a species and integrate it into the economic and cultural chain and protect it."

CMC Alpine Campus Dean Kerry Hart sees Sigstedt as the rare combination of a brilliant professor and scholar, and Hart happily supports his research and his efforts to incorporate it into his students' thinking.

"I appreciate the dynamic he brings to campus," Hart said. "He's starting to change the profile and raise the bar of what the faculty can do."

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Meghan Hanson

Seeking the bigger picture

Meghan Hanson, Steamboat Springs High School

Daily life in a destination resort town can insulate residents from the bigger picture of realities elsewhere in the world. It makes it a challenge for teachers to help students gain new perspectives.

But even students like Victoria Lavington, who benefited from a childhood spent living abroad in places like Zimbabwe and the Philippines, have gained new insight in Meghan Hanson's classroom.

"She'd try to give my point of view to the class and then have a debate and get that perspective outside, how other people think," said Lavington, who was a student of Hanson's for three years at Steamboat Springs High School before graduating this year. "Everyone's involved in the discussions and hands-on activities."

The search for broader understanding goes outside the classroom and beyond Hanson's freshman civics students on the stand at their mock trials or her junior students defending thesis arguments to an audience in their culminating Peace and Justice Symposiums. Past summers have seen Hanson land education grants and travel to New York and Chicago for workshops and research, though she admits that collaborating with and picking the brains of her Steamboat colleagues is where she makes some of her biggest breakthroughs.

In June, before her sixth year of teaching full time, the New Jersey native traveled to Tokyo for three weeks as a select participant in the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program.

"I envision myself as a teacher for the duration of my career, so it's pretty amazing talking with teachers from all over and meeting people that are equally as enthusiastic," said Hanson, who was named the high school's Teacher of the Year for the 2005-06 academic year.

That award and experiences like the one in Japan keep her motivated to find new ways to study, think and teach - so her students can do the same.

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Kevin Kleckler

The right tools

Kevin Kleckler, Hayden Middle and High School

When Kevin Kleckler headed to Western State College on a football scholarship and didn't end up playing, he thought he wouldn't last a semester. But the Moffat County High School grad discovered the school's Industrial Technology program, went on to earn his bachelor's degree and, following his return to the Yampa Valley, to begin his teaching career in Hayden in 1993, now with a master's and principal's license, as well.

There was something about that moment of engagement in the shop. With his own tools and every favor he could get from local business donations, Kleckler began building Hayden's welding and automotive vocational programs.

"If you can channel their passion and energy, high school kids can do anything," Kleckler said. "I like to see them get focused and turned on by school."

Chris Bray decided to take Kleckler's introductory welding class on a whim. By the time he was a senior, Bray was spending hours a day in the shop, and when he graduated in 2003, he had a leg up.

"(Kleckler) made it easy to learn and pick up. If it hadn't been for him I don't think I'd be doing this," said Bray, who works for Native Son Precision Welding. "It made it nice when they asked, 'Do you know how to do this?' and I could say, 'Well, yeah, I do.' I could shock them a little, so it gave me leverage into the working field."

Now after years of shoveling snow from the parked buses he shared the shop with, Klecker will see his "labor of love" realized with the completion of an 8,400-square-foot expansion to the Babson-Carpenter Career and Technical Education Center this summer.

With a constant hand in Hayden's athletics, as a coach or as the middle and high schools' athletics director since 2003 (in addition to a full teaching load), Kleckler will step aside and open a new page this academic year, focusing solely on the center's ability to engage a broader range of the region's next skilled and well-rounded students.

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Kelli Turnipseed

Superior direction

Kelli Turnipseed, Soroco Middle and High School

Kelli Turnipseed understands just how much influence a teacher can have on a student's life. Growing up in Hayden, Bill Grimes didn't just help Turnipseed develop her talent and passion for music:

"If it wasn't for Mr. Grimes, I don't think I'd have pursued college," Turnipseed said about the retired Hayden School District teacher of 33 years. Grimes helped her fill out financial aid applications and pushed her to compete, and win, state- and national-level competitions to land a scholarship to Adams State College.

Turnipseed knew she wanted to teach in a small community and return the favor. But the "unique opportunity to touch lives" knocked in the most unlikely place - the home of her high school's cross-county rival. Regardless, Turnipseed took the job the day after she graduated in 2003 and began sinking her teeth in. The efforts of five tireless years showed at this spring's Large Group Festival, where Turnipseed's high school band earned the rare "superior" rating from judges while her middle school band garnered "superior" and "excellent" ratings, both for the second consecutive year.

"Kids can come to my room and feel vulnerable and comfortable to make mistakes," Turnipseed said. "They have an opportunity to get lost and enjoy the moment and the people and to get something out of it. When you come in, it's about making something beautiful together and a chance to escape from everything else and to be in my world for 45 minutes."

Grimes occasionally heads back to that world to direct alongside Turnipseed and appreciate the full-grown teaching abilities of "probably the best overall musician I ever had," he said.

"You can have idealistic goals, but that doesn't do much without common sense and the ability to prioritize and get through the red tape - especially in music where you have to fight for your program on a daily basis, in a small district where you're trying to retain kids," Grimes said. "I'm happy she's staying in a small school district, because she's outstanding and could teach anywhere."

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Chris Adams

Never a dull moment

Chris Adams, Steamboat Springs Middle School

Chris Adams can hear the immortal words of former NFL coach Vince Lombardi echo through memories of his own junior high physical education teacher, Coach (Jim) Leirer: "Winning is not a sometime thing."

Although he has the energy to match his students, Adams has grown up a bit since his childhood on Whidbey Island, Wash. But beyond the gym full of snowshoes and floor-hockey sticks, the words still can be found tacked above his office desk.

It's a simple reminder, Adams says, of the influential coach who "got and expected the best out of you every day."

Adams challenges his own young students now, engaging the short attention spans of children at Soda Creek Elementary School who enter his gym "ready to explode." The key elements are station work to meet diverse student needs and creative fitness ideas - from training students for the World Sport Stacking Association Championships in Denver to submitting technology grants to incorporate a Dance Dance Revolution software console to organizing the "Indiana Jones Howelsen Adventure." "It's fun to do something new so the kids, say 'wow,' and it's not just rolling out the balls," Adams said. "I like to emphasize physical fitness and general sports skills so they can pursue their passion later on."

More than three decades of experience teaching and coaching in Steamboat has helped Kelly Meek appreciate the district's fortune in Coach Adams, who's entering his 15th year teaching (eight in the Steamboat district). Adams will become the middle school's PE teacher in the fall.

"I've been around a lot over the years, and Chris is the best I've ever seen," said Meek, who's benefited from Adams' assistance in coaching the high school boy's basketball team. "What impressed me is the detail he puts into organizing his classes. It's not hit or miss, it's not experimental - he has it down to the second and is extremely thoughtful of how to give his kids the best chance of having success."

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