Saluting our Teachers of the Year

With passion and joy for the work

Jean Russell, Southwest Allen Community Schools Teacher of the Year and Indiana State Teacher of the Year. Photography by Neal Bruns
Diane Barton, one of four Northwest Allen County Teachers of the Year. Photography by Neal Bruns
Mindy Moeller, one of four Northwest Allen County Teachers of the Year
Kevin Elrod, East Allen County Teacher of the Year. Photography by Neal Bruns
Rhonda Moser-Swihart, one of four Northwest Allen County Teachers of the Year. Photography by Neal Bruns
Casey Stansifer, one of four Northwest Allen County Teachers of the Year. Photography by Neal Bruns
Laura McCoy, Fort Wayne Community Schools Teacher of the Year. Photography by Neal Bruns

They say teaching is a thankless job. Long hours, lots of sass from students and testing. Lots and lots of testing. But it’s not entirely thankless: The work of these seven area teachers has earned them their district’s Teacher of the Year honors for 2015. One of them was even named Indiana Teacher of the Year. We talked with them to find out what makes them the best teachers around.

Jean Russell
Southwest Allen Community Schools Teacher of the Year and Indiana State Teacher of the Year
Reading specialist at Haverhill Elementary School. Graduated from the University of Illinois-Champagne Urbana. 26 years teaching. After being named the Indiana Teacher of the Year, she received the Sagamore of the Wabash, the state’s top civilian honor. Married for 23 years to Tom, the couple has two daughters, Katie and Sarah, plus a Boston terrier named Tippy and a long-eared rabbit named Gracie Rose. She will spend the coming school year traveling to school districts throughout Indiana to share her story.

Diane Barton
one of four Northwest Allen County Teachers of the Year
The Hickory Center Elementary School music teacher works with kindergarteners through fifth grade and also teaches fifth grade beginning band. The Fort Wayne native received her bachelor’s in music education from Ball State and her master’s in education from Indiana Wesleyan. Barton has one sister and her mother, who just turned 90 years old.

Mindy Moeller
one of four Northwest Allen County Teachers of the Year

Teaches kindergarten at Cedar Canyon Elementary School. The Fort Wayne native received her bachelor’s degree from Manchester University in elementary and early childhood education and has been teaching for 15 years. She and husband Nick have three daughters, Brooklyn, Remington and Rebecca.

Kevin Elrod
East Allen County Teacher of the Year
The Harlan resident has taught for 13 years and currently teaches sixth grade in a High Performance Teaching classroom at Leo Elementary School. He received his bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne and his master’s of education from Indiana Wesleyan. Married to Jennifer and parent to two German shepherds, Roscoe and Daisy. Fun fact: Elrod began his teaching career as a pumpkin expert and tour guide at Kurtz Produce in New Haven while in college.

Rhonda Moser-Swihart
one of four Northwest Allen County Teachers of the Year
Moser teaches eighth grade Language Arts and pre-AP English at Maple Creek Middle School. Received her bachelor’s degree from IPFW and a master’s in education from Indiana Wesleyan. She has 18 years in the classroom. Outside of the classroom, she spends her time researching family history and putting together family books. She also loves working outside, reading and hanging out with family and friends.

Casey Stansifer
one of four Northwest Allen County Teachers of the Year
A Decatur native, nine-year teaching veteran Stansifer teaches senior advanced placement language and composition at Carroll High School. He received his bachelor’s degree from IPFW and a master’s in education from Indiana Wesleyan. Outside the classroom, Stansifer is an in-demand electric and upright bass player with The Legendary Trainhoppers, the Fort Wayne Jazz Orchestra and the Dan Smyth Trio. Married for 12 years to Cara, the couple has four children: Boston, Isla, Finn and Beck.

Laura McCoy
Fort Wayne Community Schools Teacher of the Year, Top 10 finalist for Indiana Teacher of the Year
Elementary music teacher and coordinator of FWCS’s Drivers Education program. 37 years in the classroom. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ball State University. Outside the classroom, McCoy is an adult facilitator at Erin’s House for Grieving Children, plays flute professionally and serves as the teacher’s union representative for St. Joseph Elementary School. She received a Lilly Endowment Fellowship and went to Ireland to study the history of weaving. She and her husband of 35 years, Michael, have three adult sons, Andrew, Matthew and Jonathan, and two wire-haired dachshunds, Dingle and Bogart.

What does it mean to you to be named Teacher of the Year?

McCoy: It’s the ultimate compliment. It’s humbling because there are so many fabulous teachers in the district. I’ve tried to make (the award) an advocacy for teachers. It’s nice that a music teacher was not overlooked.

Russell: It was amazing, life changing. There’s a million, billion good teachers in the trenches. We are all a part of the success of the students, but not the reason.

Barton: It’s a very nice thank you. It comes from our colleagues. It’s good for educators to have positive press. I invite parents to be on a team with us for this wonderful child you have. Let’s be a team together with your kid.

Moeller: In Northwest Allen, there are so many good teachers. I was really shocked. It affirms that what I’m doing is right for the child.

Elrod: I was shocked, but at the same time I knew I had the qualities to be selected as the teacher of the year. However, after winning the award, I was excited to stop by my parents’ house on the way home and especially show my mom. She had wanted to be a teacher at one point in her life, but it never worked out that way for her. When I brought the award into my parents’ house, you could see the proud look in her eyes at my accomplishment. It was a great moment for me, and it was cool that she was able to live that experience through me.

Stansifer: Being named Teacher of the Year means that I have great colleagues and administrators who have helped me become better at meeting the needs of my students. One great teacher is made possible by the support of influential and resourceful colleagues.

Moser-Swihart: I am honored and thankful that some recognized my efforts as a teacher. I am privileged to work for an awesome school and faculty that make learning an essential focus yet create an atmosphere that we all want to come to school every day.

What is the best part about teaching?

McCoy: I’m very positive about Fort Wayne Community Schools and what we’re doing here. I’ve given them my heart and my children (all three of McCoy’s children graduated from FWCS schools, and son Jonathan is a teacher at Towles Intermediate School).

Russell: Two words: the kids. Dedicating a career to moving every student forward every single day creates a passionate, inspired professional life.

Moser-Swihart: I love to be able to come in and be as creative as I can be with the kids. I love to intrigue them. The light bulb going off (in students’ minds) – that’s cool. When the kids go beyond my expectations. It’s so gratifying to see they’re so pleased with themselves and it’s all them and it’s something they did.

Stansifer: I love when they’re able to realize something about themselves and accomplish something they didn’t think they could do.

Moeller: I love the spirit of a young child, and I like to be part of being true to that spirit. I truly, truly focus on what is right for the kids.

Barton: I want children to love to make music and to know they don’t need to just be in the audience. They can use their creative juices.

Elrod: The part I love the most is just spending time with the kids and talking about life in general. I also enjoy talking with the kids about debatable topics and showing them all different sides of the topics at hand. They learn to have compassion for opposing sides and start to understand why some people may think differently than they do.

What’s the biggest challenge you face?

McCoy: The biggest challenge I face is the lack of support from government. And the lack of respect from lawmakers. I know it’s not always intended that way, but it feels like it. I worry about the younger teachers. (And) my evaluation is based on the test scores of the whole (school).

Russell: The biggest challenge in my career so far has been the leap of faith I took in accepting my current position as a literacy coach. Five years ago, I accepted a position as a literacy coach after 21 years in the classroom. Since then, I feel like I have grown exponentially as an educator, and that the impact that I am able to make on student achievement increases every day! My philosophy of being an instructional coach begins and ends with having the heart of a servant. This has created opportunities for me to help both students and teachers discover more about themselves as learners, stretch themselves to learn more than they ever thought they could and cheer them on to continue momentum.

Barton: Across the board it has become more serious, in not a good way. I feel that kids need to sing and dance and create, to experience it rather than “know” about it.

Elrod: One of the biggest problems with education today is standardized testing and the way accountability is handled. I feel we spend more time and money to focus on holding students, principals, administrators and districts accountable than focusing on ways to teach students to be productive individuals in society. Today, education is mostly about taking or preparing for the tests. We, as a society, are programmed to think we need standardized testing to hold students and teachers accountable.

Moser-Swihart: I put pressure on myself to meet expectations that are sometimes not reachable. And I personally struggle with time management.

Stansifer: It’s trying to find a balance between the things I feel students need in life and in the curriculum. You have to balance the curriculum component.

Who was your favorite teacher?

Stansifer: My high school German teacher, Jan Heimann, is the most influential educator I have ever had. She had a true passion for her subject area, but it was her genuine interest in her students that made her an educator and not simply a staff member. She got to know us and our interests. She didn’t just teach German – she taught people. Every time I enter my classroom I think about how I might be able to treat my students and my classes in the same way Mrs. Heimann did.

Elrod: My most influential factor in choosing to enter the educational field was my Harlan Elementary fifth-grade teacher, Dan Lose. From the moment I stepped through his classroom door, I knew it was going to be a fun, engaging experience. Although I had great teachers prior to my fifth-grade year, this was different. He provided an environment beyond the normal aspects of the classroom that made me excited to learn and want to come to school each and every day. Dan was so influential that he had a majority of his class showing up for optional Saturday School. Even though we played games, watched movies and took part in other activities on these Saturdays, it was great to know that he took time out of his weekends to give us experiences we will never forget. He took time to get to know you and make learning fun. For this reason, I became an educator. I wanted to give students the same engaging, learning experience that he had provided for me.

Moser-Swihart: One of my favorite teachers was Mrs. Lipp from Wayne High School who taught a Family and Consumer Science class on Housing; this spurred my interest in interior design where I obtained an associate’s degree in Interior Design and worked for a short period. In elementary, my favorite teacher from fifth grade was Miss Hogan who later became Mrs. Neil. She knew I had some artistic abilities and always let me help with bulletin boards.

Russell: In elementary school, there were two teachers in particular who still shape me as a teacher today. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Kervin, had a dedicated space in her classroom for students to read, complete with a comfy rug, shelves of books and beanbag chairs. Reading quickly became my favorite time of the day as she encouraged us to try new genres and topics and allowed us to talk with our classmates about what we were reading. I understood, at age 7, that reading was a way to grow and learn and make friends. In third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Oliver, made everyone feel special. I remember her smiling face at her door greeting us each day and feeling like she loved me best. I can see now that she was able to make every single person in her class feel like she loved them best.

Barton: Mrs. Jacqueline Miser at Riverside Elementary School. When I student-taught with her, she had that spark.

What’s your advice for anyone considering making a career out of teaching?

McCoy: When you’re in the business of humans, it’s hard to step away. You have to learn how to step away … to set boundaries and (let others) take care of themselves.

Russell: Above all, we must convey that everything teachers say and do in a classroom has a lasting effect on each person in it. How can we not know our immeasurable value when we understand this? We have a job that can literally love us back. My goal is to work with others to accurately convey the rewards of teaching so the perception changes and our profession is considered equally attractive to careers in medicine, law or business. If that message is understood, our most talented will want to become a teacher.

Moeller: For new teachers, I would say be true to the reason you entered the profession: your passion for the child. The teaching profession can bring you down, but staying true to your goals is what keeps you going.

Barton: It’s all about building relationships. You are creating a trusting environment in the classroom where children can explore and create and be accepted.

Elrod: You need to be tough-minded and the right kind of person to be an educator. If you want to inspire others and have the desire to make people great around you, then teaching may be what you are looking for as a career. Teaching is one of the most rewarding professions in the world; however, it can be one of the most stressful as well. Many factors that are out of our control factor into how a teacher is judged, which is very unfortunate. As long as you know what you do each and every day is what you think is best for the kids, you will be successful as an educator.

Moser-Swihart: My advice for those considering teaching as a career is that they should be willing to devote lots of extra time outside of class in preparing curriculum and grading assignments; taking work home is almost the norm unlike other jobs. I think a person has to love being and talking with kids. (And) they just need to hold onto their passion. This is not just a job; it’s a passion. When it stops being fun, it becomes just a job. When you find your passion, I think great things can happen. The whole atmosphere and environment is contagious.

What’s your advice for next year’s Teachers of the Year?

Russell: You have to have the heart of a servant. Share what you know, and let it spill over.

Barton: Enjoy the honor, and remember that it represents so many people that helped you along your path.

Moser-Swihart: My advice is that as Teachers of the Year, we need to focus on what helps make learning fun, engaging and tied to the career ready standards. Students and colleagues will know if we are committed or not to them.

Stansifer: If we are named Teacher of the Year, there’s a student or a parent or a colleague that sees that passion: Remember that.

Elrod: My advice to future Teachers of the Year is that you still need to be yourself. A lot of pressure comes with a title like Teacher of the Year, and sometimes expectation causes people to look at you to be perfect. Appreciate the award, and be thankful for it. Use it as a way to help influence others and inspire people around you to be great. It is also important to thank the people who helped you get to this point in your career. For example, I never could have had the opportunity to get where I am at today if it wasn’t for my principal, Bill Diehl. He gave me the opportunities, and I ran with it. I also had the help of my sixth-grade team and especially Jennifer Hale (another sixth-grade teacher I work with). She has helped me so much over the last few years to better myself as a teacher and to help make me the teacher I am today. So be yourself, inspire others and thank those people who helped get you there.

First appeared in the May 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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