Love for children inspires new teachers

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

The first day of the first year in the first classroom with the first class is a milestone teachers mark as their career begins.

A pair of Liberty Hill’s brand new educators are settling in after that long list of firsts converged a few weeks back when they welcomed their students back to school.

Watching the students come in that first morning was exciting, but overwhelming.

“I realized at that moment that I am responsible for creating what this room feels like,” said Jennifer Skonnord, a first grade teacher at Rancho Sienna Elementary. “Walking in to different classrooms as a substitute I could feel how the different rooms felt. They feel different, the way kids interact with each other and the way they work. I realized in that moment it was my responsibility to make sure it felt the way I wanted it to feel. That was just making sure everyone was heard that day.”

At the same time, on another campus, first year teacher Kathryn Ide, who teaches third grade at Bill Burden Elementary, was trying to tame her excitement.

“I was so excited, probably too excited,” Ide said. “I’m sure some of the kids were like ‘I don’t know you yet.’ Things were working out like everything I had hoped for.”

Trying to remember the important balance between the variety of roles she now had with her students, Ide tried to focus on the middle ground.

“In the back of my head I was thinking ‘I hope they really like me’,” she said. “But then I also knew from subbing that I needed to be stern with my behavior management from day one because that sets the tone, so I was trying to create a happy medium.”

For Skonnord, the first connection was focused on a personal connection with each student.

“I learned their names the first day, that was very important to me,” Skonnord said. “I put a face with a name for each one of them.”

Both teachers have past connections or aspirations in interior design – both are Texas State graduates – and despite coming to teaching in different ways, both say their experience substitute teaching in Liberty Hill made the decision easy to become a teacher.

“It was hard to crack into (the interior design) business here in the Austin area and I didn’t know a whole lot of people,” Skonnord said. “I wanted something that was flexible with my schedule so I started substitute teaching.

“When I got into the classroom I just realized that being with these kids was fun and exciting and every day was different,” she said. “Then I also saw that giving them a hug or a high five or a smile would change their demeanor and how they reacted to me. Seeing that love I could give them just being a substitute was very rewarding, and I thought ‘How could I do that on a full-time basis?’’

Ide, who has made Liberty Hill her home with her fiance felt welcome from the beginning.

“I never had a day when I didn’t feel supported, even as a substitute,” Ide said. “I always had someone reaching out to me to see if I needed any help.”

She remembers when she got the word that she’d been hired as a full-time teacher.

“It was very emotional, and I honestly kind of didn’t believe it because it was one of those situations where that would be the dream, and then it actually happened,” Ide said. “I was nervous because my dream was coming true, but now I have to do it and try not to fail.”

While substituting, Skonnord applied and got an interview.

“They called me in and I interviewed with the principal, vice principal and then the lead teacher from first, second, third and fourth grades,” she said. “There were a lot of faces in that room. It was overwhelming.”

The effort paid off later last spring when the assistant principal caught her at lunch one day on campus and told her to stop by her office.

“I came and saw her after I scarfed down my lunch because I really wanted to know what she had to say,” Skonnord said, “and she said ‘Hey, we have a position for you if you want it.’ They knew that I really loved being here.”

Choosing to teach elementary-age children was an easy decision for Skonnord.

“I have an elementary-aged child and so I felt I could relate more to the little ones, and with the subject matter I liked the idea of a general education rather than honing in on one specific thing,” Skonnord said. “That keeps it interesting so you’re not doing the same thing over and over again.”

Ide worked with special needs students and elementary-age students while in high school through the Ready Set Teach program and knew it was the right age group for her.

“I really liked it, and enjoyed working with kids a lot,” Ide said. “I was also able to work with kids that had special needs in the general education classrooms, so that’s where it started for me.”

Building relationships is a high priority for both new teachers.

“I think it will be really cool to get to know them more and understand why they do certain things,” Skonnord said. “I get to know them personally and watch them grow academically. As we go through the year I will learn more about them and I’ll learn how to gear my teaching to lots of different things.”

They want to meet those academic standards, but not forget the importance of connections.

“The loving side of teaching, the nurturing side, really makes the struggle through the academics sometimes worth it,” Ide said. “That personal side is a big part of it all. Kids come to me with so many different situations and when I’m able to build a relationship with them through that it is something special.”

She is excited about being able to be so many things for her students.

“It comes down to being vulnerable on an emotional level,” Ide said. “Some kids come to us and we may be their only emotional outlet and that’s okay, but being that person for a kid, when you think about it, is really humbling. You get to be the one who makes them smile, or be on the receiving end of a lot of emotion when they need to talk things out.

“By the end of third grade I hope to be able to send them away with ways to be able to deal with stressful tests, but also a way to deal with conflict with friends,” Ide said. “Those are both things they’re going to need growing up.”

Before the frenzy of day one, the two new teachers got their first taste of an annual teacher ritual – setting up their classroom.

Skonnord said she tried to take it easy and not go overboard.

“I didn’t feel like I needed to purchase an overabundance of things,” Skonnord said. “I did spend enough money, but I didn’t go bankrupt trying to set up my classroom. It was exciting.

“Substituting helped me in that process because I was able to see many different ways teachers set their classrooms up. I kind of borrowed bits and pieces I had seen throughout the time that I was substituting and just kind of made it my own.”

Ide, called on her memories of classrooms growing up, and was eager to get started.

“I probably spent way too much time when I first was given the job offer,” Ide said laughing. “I waited a week and a half and then I reached out to the principal and said ‘Hey, I don’t have any keys but can I come up and start getting stuff done.’

“I wanted my room to be homey. I know when I went to school, the classes I felt most comfortable in were the ones where the teachers set it up to feel like a family.”

Like all new endeavors, this plunge into full-time teaching has come with some nerves for both and internal questions.

“It was more ‘Can I do this?’” Skonnord said. “It was can I actually teach these children. What in me thinks that I can teach someone? I’ve had that moment.”

Ide has thought a lot about how she will cope with the ups and downs and inevitable stress of teaching.

“In this profession it is so easy to take it home, to take your baggage home, to take that bad day you had with that one kid home,” Ide said. “For me, I want to make sure I don’t bring it home all the time because I know once I do I will focus on that. Making time to push through being tired or love on the people I have outside of school is important.”

When there is stress and an unknown challenge pops up, both feel like they are in the right place to get help, grow and thrive

“The level of support I’ve gotten from my colleagues has been amazing,” Skonnord said. “They’ve taken me under their wing and they know that I’m going to have questions.”

And there’s no better support structure than one that feels like family.

“This feels like home to me,” Ide said. “The first week of school was so chaotic, but I felt so loved even though I didn’t know a lot of things. I feel very blessed, because even the hard days are good here. The support system is great.”

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