It’s been an unprecedented year for Colorado Springs educators. Both the 2018 Colorado Superintendent of the Year and the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year are from school districts in the Pikes Peak region.
As they wrap up their year of holding the titles, Walt Cooper, superintendent of Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, and Christina Gillette Randle, first-grade teacher at Soaring Eagles Elementary School in Harrison School District 2, reflect on what they did as recipients of the state’s top honor in their field, what they learned and what they will carry with them.
Walt Cooper: Student mental health a nationwide concern
Cooper said he liked being enlightened by the work of the 49 other superintendents of the year, each representing one state in the nation, and in turn, enlightening them about what’s happening in Cheyenne Mountain D-12.
“I enjoyed being able to celebrate the Cheyenne Mountain story with peers and others across the country,” he said, adding that the award was “the result of the outstanding work by our teachers and students.”
He thought people were impressed that despite Cheyenne Mountain D-12 having just one high school, of about 1,300 students, the district offers a comprehensive approach that covers the arts and cross-curricular programs.
Cooper learned about differences in governance and structure of school districts in other states, and best practices in areas such as secondary math instruction. He also made friends and amassed a national network of colleagues he can call on.
Cooper traveled to Nashville, Washington, D.C., Boston and San Diego and met superintendents from small rural districts, large urban districts, high poverty districts, affluent districts, and everything in between.
“It was an interesting mix,” he said. “We got the opportunity to have some real authentic conversations.”
The topic that came up the most: student mental health.
“It’s not an anomaly,” Cooper said. “It’s impacting everybody, all over the country. It permeated almost every conversation we had.”
Depression, anxiety and stress are the main issues students are dealing with.
One of the biggest takeaways: “There’s no one right answer. No one best way.”
Resources play a key role in providing assistance, he said. Some school districts have robust community-based mental health services they can rely on, and others have virtually none.
“It’s not just about what the school has or doesn’t, but what the community brings to the table,” Cooper said.
On a parallel path, superintendents discussed the impacts of social media on students, from the amount of screen time children have, to bullying, to the social circles and relationships that are created or destroyed via social media.
Superintendents also explored equity in public education, from poor to wealthy.
Where students live, the demographics of the community, the state’s political scene and the community as a whole contribute to the issue of equity, Cooper said.
“On a number of occasions, I realized how fortunate students in D-12 are compared to many others,” he said, “and on an equal number of occasions, it was rather depressing to see kids engaged in programs I know we’ll never be able to provide, given our available resources.”
For example, Illinois’ Township High School District 214 Superintendent David Schuler, who was named the 2018 National Superintendent of the Year, talked about his district’s career and technical education.
“Not vocational programs, but the experiences kids have in practicums, internships and post-secondary options that “really allow them during high school to experience first-hand what avenues are available in terms of careers,” Cooper said. “It’s a completely different structure and environment. It was eye-opening.”
Christina Gillette Randle: ‘Go make a difference’
People often ask Randle why her? Why was she chosen as the state’s best teacher over thousands of others?
“What are you doing that’s so much different?” they wonder.
Nothing that she doesn’t think any teacher can see themselves doing.
“My hope is that it’s not why me because I’m doing something so different but anything anybody would be able to replicate,” Randle said.
After 16 years of teaching, she maintains high energy in her classroom every day.
“It’s fast-paced. I joke with my kids. We have humor, love, time to be empathetic, we say our classmates are family, we have high expectations and a balance of social health,” Randle said. “We learn skills to get along, problem-solving and conflict resolution. It’s the whole learner I look at.”
That’s what she told teachers in training and teachers just ready to lead a classroom in her role as Teacher of the Year.
Her message: “How fortunate they are because we have the greatest profession in the world.”
“We have the ability to impact their future, to empower kids, motivate them and help them realize their potential,” Randle said. “That lasts a lifetime.”
In several public speaking engagements, including at the University of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University, Randle talked about the joy teachers have in doing their job and how her excitement builds her students’ excitement.
And with first graders, “I feel like I’m their first impression of school. We get to build and lay that foundation of what to expect from school.”
Randle said she has loved having a voice at the table and the opportunity to learn and grow throughout what she said has been “a magical year.”
Teachers of the Year from each state met with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in Washington D.C.
“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to share our opinions,” Randle said.
DeVos asked teachers what barriers existed in their jobs. Randle replied that teachers don’t just teach, they also act as counselors, health aides and even parents.
“We have so many roles,” Randle said. “The lack of resources means we have one counselor for 500 students, so it’s all hands on deck.”
Randle doesn’t consider herself to be passing the torch to Colorado’s 2019 teacher of the year, Margaret “Meg” Cypress, a fifth-grade teacher from Bradley International School in Denver Public Schools.
“I’m lighting another one,” Randle said.