Class Acts

  • Written by: David Port
  • Photos by: Aaron Ford and Kerri McDermid

Our Schools are full of outstanding educators. Let’s meet four of St. Vrain’s finest...

Outstanding students are the product of outstanding teachers, and St. Vrain Valley Schools has no shortage of either. The four teachers profiled below stand out, not just for the consistently excellent results they produce in the classroom, but also for the important role they play in inspiring students in St. Vrain to do great things in their schools and with their lives.

Photo: Sara Hopp, Science & Yearbook, Mead Middle School

Sara Hopp, Science & Yearbook, Mead Middle School

“I teach because… I want kids to come away with a love for science.”

The epiphany for Sara Hopp came during a commute home from her job as a chemist at a Colorado pharmaceutical company, upon hearing a radio commercial inviting listeners to try the teaching profession. “I called the next day, and two days later, I was signing up for classes” toward a master’s degree that would allow her to leave the corporate world to become a teacher.

“Fourteen years later, here I am,” says Hopp, the enthusiasm evident in her voice, even at the close of a long school day.

Hopp says the chemistry class she took during her sophomore year of high school convinced her of two things: that she wanted a career in science, and “that someday I would be a science teacher, because science has always been my passion.”

Teaching seventh and eighth graders not only has allowed Hopp to pursue that decidedly left-brained passion, it also has allowed her to cultivate another, more right-brained passion, as coordinator of Mead Middle School’s yearbook. “I love it because being a scientist, I’m very analytical,” she explains. “Yearbook is different. It lets me use my creative side.”

Whether it is producing a yearbook or reproducing a chemical reaction in the lab, Hopp is of one mind when it comes to her approach in the classroom: “Learn by doing. I try very, very hard to make sure my kids are ‘doing,’ because that’s what science is.”

There was plenty of “doing” in Hopp’s classroom during the past school year, when she had her seventh graders design and build earthquake-resistant structures, then test them on an “earthquake shake table,” and had her eighth graders design and build race cars powered by the potential energy of a mousetrap. Whatever Hopp has them “doing,” when they are in the classroom with her, she says, “they are no longer students, they are my scientists.”

Photo: Stephen Tobin, Mathematics, Niwot High School

Stephen Tobin, Mathematics, Niwot High School

“I teach because… I love seeing students’ sense of accomplishment from being able to solve a problem.”

Stephen Tobin is well aware that mathematics, the subject he teaches at Niwot High School, can turn even the most unflappable of people into a hot mess, which is why he strives to keep the classroom vibe as low-key as possible, whether the subject is standard-level geometry or college-level calculus.

“Everybody talks about math anxiety,” the affable Tobin says. “I’m about making it a relaxed, fun, comfortable environment for people to talk through a problem, ask questions, and find answers.”

The approach that Tobin honed during his more than two decades as an educator in Illinois is more about guiding students to seek and find solutions their own way. “As a teacher, it is important to realize there are always different perspectives in solving a problem. What I try to do is ask more questions than I answer for the kids, so I am not telling them how to do things. I am trying to understand how they are seeing things, what they are understanding and not understanding, to help them become better problem solvers.”

An avid outdoorsman, cyclist, and runner — he has completed six marathons — Tobin moved to Colorado in 2016 with his wife, a St. Vrain kindergarten teacher, and their six kids. “We’re like the Brady Bunch,” he says, referencing the 1970s-era TV sitcom about a blended family.

Even after raising a half-dozen kids of his own and helping to shape hundreds of others over a quarter-century in the classroom, Tobin says he remains passionate about teaching — and about helping people work through their math anxiety. “I’m always trying to figure out ways to do it better, to reach more kids. I have fun doing what I do and I enjoy problem-solving. I think that just carries over to the kids.”

Photo: Kim Westmoreland, Second Grade, Legacy Elementary School

Kim Westmoreland, Second Grade, Legacy Elementary School

“I teach because… one effective teacher can change a student’s life for the better.”

The old “better late than never” adage certainly applies to Kim Westmoreland’s teaching career. “When I turned 50, I realized I did not love my job,” she recalls, referring to her more than two decades in the accounting and finance world. “It just wasn’t healthy for me, sitting in front of a computer monitor all day long, manipulating data. So I started from scratch.”

That meant returning to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in education, then taking a student teaching post, an experience that confirmed trading accounting for education was the right move. Now, entering her fifth year of teaching elementary school and her fourth in St. Vrain, Westmoreland says unequivocally about the late career change: “It was worth it. I absolutely love what I do.”

Seeing kids recognize and tap their unique talents makes teaching worthwhile, she says. “I believe truly, in my heart, that every kid is gifted — that each of them has a gift. It is my job to help them find it.”

Westmoreland says she has done plenty of learning herself in her first four years leading a classroom. “My first year teaching, I probably let children be children too much. My classroom management was pretty loose,” she says with a wistful chuckle. “But I got a handle on that, and I have realized that the best approach for me as a teacher is to make whatever subject you are teaching exciting, then let kids explore.”

Westmoreland is an explorer herself. Besides the career pivot as a 50-something, she is a mentor at her church, and also finds time to ski, hike, and help her husband tend to their bees. But above all, she is a teacher, the job she wanted since she was a girl who preferred to play school when her friends wanted to play house. “Teaching does end up being your hobby as well as your job. And I’m fine with that.”

Photo: Tara Winger, Fifth Grade, Sanborn Elementary School

Tara Winger, Fifth Grade, Sanborn Elementary School

“I teach because… I want to make a positive difference in kids’ lives.”

Teachers were instrumental in helping support and guide Tara Winger through what she says was a “rough time growing up” in Longmont. And now, as a teacher in the town where she spent much of her youth, Winger is paying it forward.

“There were individual teachers who took an interest in me and encouraged me to keep pushing forward, and that made all the difference for me,” recalls the Niwot High School graduate (Class of 1984), who has been teaching in St. Vrain for 20 years, and whose husband was a principal before retiring.

Each school year, and each group of kids, has its own unique identity. So how will Winger remember her latest crop of fifth graders? “This particular group of children pushes the envelope,” she says, “and I mean that in a good way. They are questioning, they are wanting their voices heard, they challenge things.”

Whatever the age of her students — Winger has taught first, second, and fifth grades, as well as second-language learners, over the course of her career — the priority is always making individual connections. “It’s about getting to know what makes each kid tick, what sparks their interest, then trying to teach them based on what I learn about them. Relationships are huge for me.”

And through teaching, she has built plenty of lasting ones. “With teaching, you don’t always see the impact you have on kids the year you have them. I know I impact them because they come back to see me, years later.

“Those,” she says, the emotion evident in her voice, “are some of my most gratifying moments.”

Thank you for shaping my life

We had graduating seniors write letters of appreciation to a teacher who made the greatest impact on them.

By the Numbers: Educators in St. Vrain

teacher/student contact hours in a school year.
teachers with graduate degrees.
professional development credits earned by teachers and staff last year.
total employees in St. Vrain Valley Schools.

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