Meet Little Rock Family's Second Annual 'Amazing Educators'
Passion, dedication, inspiration, compassion—Little Rock Family’s Amazing Educators embody all of these things. What makes these teachers truly remarkable is that each inspires these qualities in their students, as well.
That’s why we’re so proud to present our second annual Amazing Educators program, presented by Windstream and sponsored by Delta Dental. On the following pages, we salute four incredible teachers in central Arkansas who were nominated by peers, parents and community members for going above and beyond in the classroom.
An independent panel of judges comprised of education professionals chose a winner in four separate categories: Elementary School, Middle/Junior High School, High School and Special Needs. Winners were recognized in the fall of 2014 through surprise school assemblies and classroom visits, and each received a prize package from sponsor Delta Dental, as well as a $1,500 check from presenting sponsor Windstream.
Little Rock Family congratulates our second class of Amazing Educators and thanks our sponsors for their support. We also thank each reader who nominated an inspiring teacher who has made a difference in your community. To learn how you can nominate a teacher for next year’s Amazing Educators awards, visit LittleRockFamily.com/AmazingEducator. Nominations will be accepted for private and public school teachers in Pulaski, Faulkner, Saline and Lonoke counties.
- Elementary School - Dixie Fair, Booker Arts Magnet Elementary
- Middle/Junior High School - Lisa Twyford, Robinson Middle School
- High School - Susie Qualls Thompson, Little Rock Christian Academy
- Special Needs - Kara Siemens, Arkansas School for the Deaf
Dixie Fair, Booker Arts Magnet Elementary
Dixie Fair always wanted to be an educator, and even got a test-run early in life: “When I was in the seventh grade, my English teacher was going to be late to school, so she called me at home and asked me to start the class for her,” Fair says. Now, Fair has been teaching for almost 28 years and spends her days mastering the “juggling act” of a second grade classroom at Booker Arts Magnet Elementary.
“Our day goes so fast trying to squeeze in all subjects before they go to lunch and recess. Many children leave for Reading Intervention or Gifted and Talented,” she says. “Our students are very fortunate to spend an hour every day in music, drama, art or dance classes. Each week we go to the Media Center, Technology Center and the Counselor. I’m very blessed to work with an amazing staff here at Booker. We are like a family.”
Fair enjoys teaching about penguins and authors, but her favorite lesson is on weather: “It’s an interesting topic, and living in Arkansas gives me lots to teach,” she says. And, of course, her students are always motivated to tackle difficult subjects when technology is involved. “They love to use the Interactive Smart Board or Elmo projector,” she says. But she also employs “differentiated instruction” to accommodate different learning styles and the use of hands-on activities. “I have a project in February on Quilt Codes, the messages or codes that assisted slaves as they traveled north for freedom,” she says. “The children color a quilt square and put them together to form a quilt.”
Part of Fair’s daily juggling act is encouraging students who may not have the advantage of a stable home environment: “The most difficult part of teaching is breaking down the barriers between life and learning. Many students’ basic needs aren’t met adequately, making it difficult to focus on academics,” she says. “It is frustrating to see a student not even try to learn. Many students have to be taught one-on-one. Then there are those students that take off, and they have to be challenged. I have to find a balance every day.”
Fair’s nurturing nature is an asset in her classroom, as well as her own experiences as a mother of two. “I have always said, ‘I am a mother first. If I would be upset as a mother, then I try not to do it as a teacher.’ I don’t like to give F’s. A 7- or 8-year-old has not lived long enough to be a failure at anything.”
Though Fair works to inspire a love for learning in her classroom, perhaps her greatest quality as an educator is simply her love for her students: “I want my kids to love school and feel safe and loved. I know I have the power to make or break a child. That is a part of my job I take very seriously. I may give the only hug or kind word a child gets that day,” Fair says. “It is sad when an 8-year-old does not enjoy school. I hope when they leave my classroom they have confidence, love school, and they know I will always be there to help. I tell the students once they are in my class, they are always mine.”
“I was blessed with awesome teachers. I still keep in touch with one. Her name is Mrs. Margrave. I had her for two years of Home Economics, and then in my senior year I was her monitor. She inspired me with her amazing strength and faith. She taught me to sew, and it is a wonderful hobby today.”
“I define success as a teacher when former students come to see me and tell me I made a difference in their lives. One of my proudest moments was when I received a Facebook message from a student who was at-risk and now he has a degree, a family and a baby.”
“I was so surprised to win Amazing Educators. Like I said—“speechless.” My daughter asked me when I realized it was me and it wasn’t until they said my name. I was standing there with an awesome teacher. I thought they were still weeding out teachers! To the person who nominated me: It reminded me of the rewards that come with teaching.”
Lisa Twyford, Robinson Middle School
Lisa Twyford didn’t immediately find her calling as an educator. After graduating from Hendrix College with a degree in business, she embarked on a career journey: “I worked as a legal secretary, a nanny, an apartment manager and an accountant before deciding to go back to college to become a teacher.” She got her first teaching job at Wynne Junior High School: “Each day when I would put my key into the lock on my door, I was so thankful to have found my ‘fit.’ I knew the classroom was the place I was supposed to be!”
After 18 years in education, Twyford now says those early growing pains help with her seventh and eighth grade classes at Robinson Middle School, where she teaches vocational subjects, such as Leadership and Service Learning, and Keyboarding. “I look forward to Career Day each year. In early May, all eighth graders showcase what they have learned in Career Orientation,” she says. “They have researched careers, colleges and the skills needed for future success. They come to school dressed appropriately for their chosen career. We have guest speakers and a career fair where the students display their researched information.”
Twyford’s students not only learn about possible careers, they also learn how to be model citizens: She has taken students to serve lunch to the homeless and encouraged them to collect items for nonprofit organizations. Students in her Leadership and Service Learning course host fundraisers for causes like autism and Alzheimer’s. “This year we raised over $800 and had 439 students sign pledges to be drug free,” she says. “We talk about how $1 is not much, but when your little $1 is put with someone else’s little $1, it can do big things!”
To further help her students succeed, Twyford founded the Robinson Middle School mentoring program in the fall of 2010. “I felt there was a need to bridge the gap between elementary school and middle school,” she says. The program provides three mentors for each sixth grade homeroom class. Seventh graders with exemplary behavior are invited to apply in the spring to become mentors the next fall. Twyford says “they are expected to perform to the best of their ability academically and to be role models in all aspects of their lives. They take this responsibility very seriously.” In addition to leading discussions on bullying, character, manners, school spirit, drugs and more, Twyford says the students form a bond that lasts into high school.
Twyford’s ultimate goal isn’t one that can be learned from a textbook: “My goal is to instill in my students the importance of making good choices. Life is all about choices,” she says. “I want them to hear me saying, ‘Be problem solvers. Learn from your mistakes—move on. Only you can change your life. Never stop growing. Take care of your body—you only get one! Think before you act. Think before you speak. Think. Be a good citizen. Vote. Respect yourself. Respect others. Be responsible with all that is entrusted to you. If you break it, fix it. Do right. Don’t let wrong be an option. Have fun—lots of fun!’ I want my students to discover the specific gifts and abilities given to them for their life’s plan and purpose so that they can experience life to its fullest in their homes, in their careers, and in life.”
“Dr. Ken Mott, East Arkansas Community College, inspired me to be a lifelong learner. His knowledge base was incredible, so he could infuse every discussion with vital information. He made each and every lesson relevant, because he was a passionate educator. Students entered his classroom from all walks of life and were welcomed into an environment where we were challenged to grow on a daily basis. He also showed me how an educator’s influence, even if for only a brief period of time, can change someone’s life!”
“One of my favorite programs my students present is on Veterans Day. I believe it is critical for our students to recognize the price of the freedoms we enjoy. One of this year’s speakers, Staff Sergeant Jonathan Perry, told them that the greatest way we can thank a veteran or soldier is to be the best that we can be—to achieve our dreams and take advantage of the freedoms they have worked to obtain and preserve for us.”
“I am the proudest when my students show good character. I try to impress upon them that being men and women of character will change the trajectory of their lives. When I see those qualities taking root, I am proud!”
Susie Qualls Thompson, Little Rock Christian Academy
High school students are always hearing about the “real world,” and planning for the day when they finally enter that new realm of adulthood and responsibility. In Susie Qualls Thompson’s ninth-12th grade classrooms at Little Rock Christian Academy, students prepare for that world of opportunity with economics, business and accounting classes.
Thompson knows all about the “real world.” Before becoming a teacher 10 years ago, she worked as a CPA and traveled around the globe to audit businesses, big and small. She worked for an investment company, where she obtained a real estate and contractor license. And while staying home to raise children, she did bookkeeping and taxes for clients.
“It is so fun to be able to use all of my real life work experiences in the classroom,” Thompson says. “I am passionate about teaching money skills and economics to students because it is applicable to everyone and everything. My own mom was a single mom of four. I saw how hard it is if you don’t have emergency funds and you get behind. Money problems are one of the leading causes of divorce, male suicide, stress, college drop-outs, excessive debt, etc. If I can help my students be prepared for the future and hopefully avoid these hardships, I want to do that.”
Thompson got her start at LRCA as a mom and volunteer. When she realized her older children’s need for money skills, she offered to teach finance and accounting—and the school’s financial literacy program was born.
She also founded LRCA’s chapter of Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA), an international organization that offers training and competition in career-focused events. “The students love to participate in competitive events outside of the classroom,” Thompson says. “This allows them to transfer classroom learning to real life. They learn so much while interacting with business leaders, organizations and students from other schools.”
Thompson says she engages students in interesting projects, such as a 10-week stock market program and a new lesson called “The Trading Game,” which tackles concepts like world trade, trade barriers and GDP (Gross Domestic Product). When lessons get particularly challenging, Thompson says, “I motivate students to take ownership by showing how it applies to them individually. For instance, I start watching the business channel around 5:30 a.m. each day in order to bring in the latest economic news to tie into the day’s lesson. I also make sure each major concept has components that appeal to each learning style: auditory, visual or kinesthetic. I make sure each concept covers the past in connection to the Bible, the present in the current business news, and the future in how the students can apply it in their lives.”
What’s the most important lesson of all in Thompson’s classrom? Integrity, she says. “All my students have to learn Matthew 16:26, which states, ‘What does it profit us, if we gain the whole world, but lose our souls…’ As we learn about money and ‘stuff,’ I want them to not lose sight of what is really important in the end.”
“My Head of School, Dr. Arnold, goes to almost every event the students are involved in to pray over the students and encourage them. My principal, Mr. Neff, inspires us at each in-service with themes and quotes. The faculty and staff that I work with are so professional and cutting edge. I observe and learn from them. Many nights when I am there working late, there are many others there, too, working to create the best lessons to challenge our wonderful students. ”
“The Federal Reserve Education Advisory Board in Little Rock and Economics Arkansas are the best. They offer so many educational tools and help for teachers in Arkansas. I have attended their training seminars and used their competitive events like the Stock Market Game (which I use every year) and the Fed’s online lessons. In years past I have been a teacher trainer for them in some rural parts of Arkansas. They have helped to make me the teacher I am.”
“I felt like a proud mom observing my students this past summer as our business team, dressed for success in their business suits, interacted with our congressmen and senators in our nation’s capital. They were being honored for their winnings in the Capitol Hill Stock Challenge. Our team was first in Arkansas and fifth in the nation, out of more than 15,000 students.”
Kara Siemens, Arkansas School for the Deaf
When Kara Siemens says she understands her students, she means it. As a fifth grade Math and Science teacher at the Arkansas School for the Deaf, Siemens’ own struggle with Dyslexia is an asset. “My learning disability gave me a compassion for others with learning struggles. I have an understanding of the difficulties they face and what it takes to succeed,” she says.
Growing up near Tulsa, Oklahoma, Siemens says she had a great teaching example: “I was home educated and my mom was my teacher. She worked to structure and pace my education to fit my needs. She taught me that I could do anything through hard work and determination. She listened to my interests, passion and gifts and encouraged me to explore them through volunteer work.”
When Siemens expressed interest in American Sign Language as a teen, her mother sought out a service project at Happy Hands Education Center, a preschool for deaf and hard-of-hearing children in Oklahoma. “I learned sign language right alongside the 3-6 year olds,” she says. Siemens volunteered at the preschool from 1997-2004, earning over 1,456 volunteer hours.
More significantly, Siemens says, she was given the role of “buddy” to a child who was easily distracted and disruptive in class. “I sat beside him and we ‘listened’ together. When it looked like he was losing interest or becoming distracted, I would ask him a question or point out something fascinating in the material. I loved finding ways to motivate reluctant learners to get involved in an activity. It is where I fell in love with teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing students.”
Individualized education remains a focus for Siemens, who recently completed the process to become a National Board Certified, Early Childhood through Young Adulthood/Exceptional Needs Specialist. “I do my best to meet each student where they are in language development and academic skills, and build from there,” Siemens says. “Some students learn best through ASL while others need sign language supported speech. Many times throughout the day I will present a concept to the entire class, then go to individual students and repeat or reinforce concepts using his or her individual communication mode.”
Because her students have limited written vocabulary skills, Siemens has worked to break down communication barriers in multiple ways. She found that video was a perfect way for students to articulate math or science concepts they learned, but didn’t have enough class time to teach the features on iPads. So she formed the Movie Making Club “as a fun way to teach my students about iPads and to provide them a barrier-free avenue to express themselves.”
Siemens also started the Robotics Club after the school was given two Lego MindStorm kits by their co-op, Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative (ARESC). “Robotics is an excellent way for my students to work through authentic problem-solving scenarios, explore the capabilities of the robot and improve their cooperative learning skills,” she says.
Through after-school clubs or individualized education, Siemens believes in providing avenues for success: “I hope every student leaves my class believing in his or her ability to learn and be successful.”
“I teach a unit on photosynthesis every year, and I love how my students see the trees and plants on our campus in a whole new light. My favorite reaction was when a student brought a leaf to me at recess and asked, ‘Is this leaf making its own food and producing oxygen right now!?’ She then looked around the playground in wonder at the trees, grass, and bushes all making their own food and producing oxygen all around her. I love opening up my students’ eyes to the marvels of the world we live in.”
“My goal has always been to teach at a deaf school because here my students are not a minority or an oddity. They are just another student in my class, and communication is open and free among students and staff all over campus.”
“The thing that keeps me going day after day is the anticipation of that ‘light bulb moment’ when a student suddenly understands a concept or when a student who has struggled to learn a skill says, ‘I did it, I did it all by myself!’”