Top of the Class
- Written by: David Port
- Photos by: Kerri McDermid
Photo: Jesse Sapir, third grade teacher, Burlington Elementary
Our Schools are full of outstanding educators. Let’s meet four of St. Vrain’s finest...
Some people realize early they were born to teach and devote their entire careers to it. Others discover their calling as educators later in life. Some teachers gravitate to early learners who need help tying their shoes, some to middle schoolers in the throes of adolescence and others to high schoolers with basic reading and writing challenges. Regardless of how and why they came to teaching, the common denominator for the four St. Vrain Valley educators profiled here is a genuine passion for helping kids succeed in the classroom and in life.
Jesse Sapir, third Grade Teacher, Burlington Elementary
“I teach because…I enjoy being with my students every day.”
Like most teachers, Jesse Sapir is always searching for new and creative ways to connect with kids.
For Sapir, who is entering his twelfth year teaching third grade at Burlington Elementary and his fourteenth year at the school, the go-to tool for engaging device-happy digital era kids in the classroom is a decidedly low-tech throwback from the 1970s: the Rubik’s Cube 3-D puzzle.
“I keep 20 of them in the classroom, and every year, I get a bunch of kids hooked on it. [Trying to solve the puzzle] teaches them patience and the value of practice,” explains Sapir, 37, who grew up a short train ride from New York City and later settled in Colorado after attending college and graduate school at the University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado State, respectively. “It’s interesting, too, because the kids who end up being the best at solving it aren’t always the ones you would expect.”
A rock climber, skateboarder and father of two kids under age five, Sapir says he savors the unpredictability and fast pace that come with teaching eight- and nine-year-olds. “My job is different every day. You’re racing the clock, trying to get things done, instead of watching the clock.”
Each school year brings its own unique set of circumstances and teaching challenges, and this past one, with a class that happened to consist of two-thirds boys, was no different, he says. “That brought a whole different level of energy.”
Matching that energy is perhaps a teacher’s biggest challenge, Sapir acknowledges. “Teaching is demanding, no doubt. There is no down time whatsoever. It can be exhausting.”
But watching kids discover and learn – and master the Rubik’s Cube in 13 steps – makes all that expended energy worthwhile. “The moments where I see them do things they never thought they could do, that’s when I know I’m making a difference.”
Kelly Corne, English and literacy teacher, Mead High School
“I teach because…I love empowering students to learn to love reading and find value in themselves and their potential to make a difference in the world.”
Kelly Corne straddles both ends of the educational spectrum at Mead High School, as a literacy teacher for students whose English writing and reading skills are below grade level and as an AP literature teacher for kids who already read and write at a college level.
Corne, a mother of two who’s been teaching in St. Vrain Valley Schools for more than a decade, including the last seven years at Mead High, says the juxtaposition makes her better at her job. “I see kids who don’t feel successful at anything finally start to have success, and I see kids that have never struggled at school. Working with one group, I think, helps inform how I work with the other. Some of the high-level reading activities that work with kids in an AP class I can adapt for the literacy students. And seeing some of the things the literacy kids struggle with, I think, helps me understand how to help kids in the AP class.”
That dual perspective proved especially useful during the 2016-2017 school year, she says, when the “AP for All” program debuted at Mead High, opening AP English classes to students who otherwise may not have qualified.
That, combined with her work in the school’s literacy program, provides a steady stream of the “light bulb moments” that the hiking enthusiast Corne, 35, says are her most rewarding as a teacher. “When I see a kid make two-and-half grade levels of growth in a single school year, and gain confidence by pushing themselves, that’s the best part of my job.”
Tracey King, kindergarten teacher, Erie Elementary
“I teach because…I want to inspire the next generation of kids.”
The comment came out of nowhere from one of Tracey King’s kindergarten students toward the end of the last school year, yet another reminder that she made the right career choice.
“‘I want to be just like you, Mrs. King, a teacher,’” she recounts the kindergartner telling her.
King, 31 and expecting her second child this year, almost chose another path. Although she says she realized as a high schooler in her native Wichita, Kansas, that she wanted a career working with kids, other, more lucrative professions beckoned. Then, as an undergrad at the University of Colorado Boulder, came an epiphany. “I realized I wanted to do something that I’m passionate about, and that’s always been teaching.”
Once she committed to teaching, King quickly gravitated toward elementary-aged kids, earning a master’s degree in elementary education at Regis University in Denver in 2010, then landing a kindergarten teaching post at Erie a few years later, in 2014.
“I just fell in love with the five- and six-year-olds. They’re so excited to come to school and everything is a new experience for them,” says the sixth-year teacher, who is also an avid runner and reader. “These are amazing little people, and I get the opportunity to do something to their hearts and minds when they’re little, to provide that small piece of inspiration that maybe they’ll carry around with them for the rest of their lives.”
Her students provide plenty for King to carry around, too. “They’re just such good people,” she says. “There’s so much bad stuff happening today, but they remind you that there’s a lot of good in the world, too. These kids are just full of kindness and thoughtfulness.”
Janis Vogelsberg, seventh Grade Social Studies Teacher, Coal Ridge Middle School
“I teach because…it is a calling and because I am excited to see the journey students make.”
It took 12 years of colleagues repeatedly asking her, “Why aren’t you a teacher, you’re so supportive of people and so good at training them?” before Janis Vogelsberg realized it was time to try to answer the question for herself.
So Vogelsberg, 37 and the mother of two high schoolers, departed her job managing a medical imaging practice to return to school for a teaching degree. Now, after three years at Coal Ridge Middle School in Firestone, she isn’t looking back. Teaching, she says, “is truly what I was meant to do. For me, it’s a calling, not a job.”
Learning, she says, is a journey that teachers and students make together – in this case through world history and culture. Her chosen companions on the journey are middle schoolers, a group with which she says she has a special connection. “There’s a lot going on socially and emotionally for them during this time, and middle school can set the tone for where a person goes in life. It’s one of those things where if we don’t grab them now…”
Stoking students’ appetite for learning doesn’t appear to be a problem for Vogelsberg, who employs a blended learning model that gives kids greater input into their educational experience through a combination of self-directed online work and classroom time.
Vogelsberg says she’s bent on making that class time meaningful – and fun – by cooking up activities like the “Pats vs. Plebs” game (modeled after Jenga, a game played with wooden blocks) to illustrate the social dynamics that prevailed between the upper-class Patricians and working-class Plebeians of Ancient Rome.
Keeping it fresh in the classroom is not always easy, nor is presiding over a couple dozen emotionally and hormonally roiling middle schoolers, concedes Vogelsberg, who outside the classroom enjoys swimming, singing and the outdoors. “It’s extremely difficult. There’s no turning off with this job. Once you accept that, it’s inspiring and amazing!”
By the Numbers: Educators in St. Vrain
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