Six Outstanding Educators
Taking it to School in the Rogue Valley
Six Outstanding Southern Oregon Educators
Story by Valerie Coulman
Each fall kicks of a new season of learning here in the Rogue Valley, and a veritable army of teachers, administrators and staff begins the journey of guiding students through a range of subjects and skills. Whether in public, private or charter school, from pre-school to adult learning, exceptional educators like these represent a range of professionals that, at the heart of the matter, share one common goal: helping students develop the skills, and the heart, for a life-long love of learning.
A Lifelong Love of Literature and Learning
(Osher Lifelong Learning Institute: Teacher/Council Member)
When Kathy Rosengren moved to the Rogue Valley with her husband after retiring in 2008, she found that she missed the classroom. Forty-four years of teaching and administrative positions in various academic settings didn’t in any way dim her love of literature and the arts, and she soon found herself back to teaching as a volunteer at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in Ashland. What they also found was a wonderful way to find community in their new hometown.
“OLLI is unique in that its program is tailored to people 50 years of age and older,” says Rosengren. “It offers a variety of subjects including academic, skills, and personal interest courses. We remove the barriers of requiring papers and exams and there are no grades given.”
Rosengren has taught numerous classes (she holds an M.A. in English Literature from University of Wyoming, and did PhD coursework at Purdue University), but has also taken courses that range from English Country Dance to the Supreme Court to the History of the City of London. Her own classes may connect to Oregon Shakespeare Festival offerings (Rosengren has taught travel and study classes at OSF for thirty-seven years), or springboard from student requests. Along with teaching, Rosengren has also served on the OLLI Curriculum Committee for four years, and has just been elected to the OLLI Council.
“Teaching at OLLI is every teacher’s dream,” admits Rosengren. “These are people who choose subjects they want to know about and truly work at them. We have students who are here because they want to be.” It is a lively community comprised of a range of backgrounds and interests that meet over an equally diverse range of subjects.
“I tell OLLI students that they have nothing to lose if they are afraid to sign up for something they know nothing about,” says Rosengren. “If they are interested in anything, they can find it here.”
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI)
Charting New Paths in Education
(Logos Charter School: K-6 Principal)
An avid baseball fan, Sheryl Zimmerer, K-6 Principal at Logos Charger School in Medford, has never been one to balk at new challenges. In fact, she seems to thrive on them.
In 2003, after seven years as a homeschool parent, Zimmerer decided to go back to school herself. While earning her Bachelor’s Degree in History (and still homeschooling for two years), then her Master’s in Education through SOU, Zimmerer got a taste of both private and public school settings but eventually settled on a unique opportunity offered her as a teacher at Logos Charter School. “This was the perfect blend of my history,” acknowledges Zimmerer, who after several years of teaching went back to the classroom again to take on the role of K-6 Principal.
One of the first of its kind in Oregon, Logos Charter School offers resources and support for homeschool families in the Rogue Valley. Zimmerer loves making opportunities available through the school’s focus on individualized education. “Dynamic family involvement and customized school resources based on specific student and family needs makes this school unique,” says Zimmerer. “It’s pretty cool to be able to offer a personalized education to each student.”
Through curriculum selection, field trips, free on-site tutoring, community opportunities or in-home teacher support, Zimmerer is enthusiastic about helping each family choose and provide the best education material and practices available for each student. “It gets me excited to know these families are doing a great job and we can come alongside and help them do it better,” says Zimmerer. “It’s a hard job. I know—I did it.”
Whether at her desk, in the classroom or on the school’s softball team, Zimmerer’s passion for learning spills easily into her conversation as she looks ahead to new opportunities at Logos. “It’s new, it’s fun and we’re creating something completely different,” says Zimmerer. “It really does seem to be the way education is going. And we’re leading the way.”
Logos Charter School
Many Hats, One Focus
(St. Mary’s School: Middle School Head, Mathematics)
When Chris Johnson, a Portland-area native, completed his M.A. in Education from Tufts University, he was excited to return to Oregon and accept a position at St. Mary’s School in Medford. “The vision for the school was really inspiring,” recalls Johnson, and so in 1996 he began as a math teacher for the middle school there, before taking on the additional role of Middle School Head in 2000.
Like most teachers, Johnson wears a number of extra hats on the job. He coaches middle school boys’ basketball, and manages the school’s physical plant. He travels with students both locally and internationally as a trip leader for the school’s international trips, and for the Outdoor Club that introduces students to different wilderness areas geared to their abilities. “It’s neat to take kids that might have limited experience with backpacking and take them on a trip that’s not a forced march,” laughs Johnson.
In a sense, that epitomizes Johnson’s approach to teaching at St. Mary’s School. “We don’t want a factory here,” he says. Unlike many private schools, St. Mary’s School does not require an admissions test and tailors its curriculum to a broad range of abilities and skills in a more holistic approach to education. “We really want our school to be a kid-centered place where they feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves,” says Johnson, who is very excited about the new construction at the school that has opened additional spaces for focused instruction, particularly in music and art.
“This is such an exciting time in our school,” says Johnson. Everyone from the staff to the families and students are positive about the opportunities available and the partnerships with the community through sports, ESD partnerships, local food banks, and ecological projects. “It’s an incredible privilege,” sums up Johnson.
St. Mary’s School
Guiding Students Through College Courses
(Rogue Community College (Grants Pass): Teacher)
When it comes to finding a variety of interests in life, Wayd Drake, faculty member at Rogue Community College in Grants Pass, has a colorful and varied list. Along with an RCC Associate Degree, a B.A. in Linguistics (UO), and an M.A. in Theater Production and Design (SOU), Drake has worked in social work, run several businesses and travelled the world for work, study and play. He has also been a local river guide for the past 10 years, filling his teaching “off seasons” with time outdoors.
“My whole life, I’ve been a jack-of-all-trades,” admits Drake, who has found that the role of river guide very closely parallels his experiences as a college teacher. “I think of myself as a guide to education rather than an academic that lectures from the lectern.” Helping students navigate the course work, identify their strengths and taking time to learn from each stage all form part of his classroom strategy. “I try to create an environment where students feel safe taking risks in front of others,” says Drake.
“I teach two of the scariest classes on campus,” says Drake, who teaches both acting and public speaking courses. “In speech no one really wants to be there…with acting the only difference is that the student has already decided that they are ready to take some risks.” But the skills they learn translate directly into leadership qualities—for all types of personalities.
Along with seven years of teaching at RCC, Drake advises student clubs, oversees lights and sound for campus theater spaces, enjoys live music, chairs the Artistic Committee at Barnstormer’s Theater and was part of founding Southern Oregon Impact Theater.
“One of the reasons I am continuing to teach is because I learn every day,” says Drake, who sees time with his students as a two-way learning opportunity. “If I am not learning then it must be time to do something else.”
Rogue Community College
Seeing Potential Beyond Circumstances
(Phoenix High School: Principal)
When looking back at her own story, Principal Jani Hale of Phoenix High School easily admits, “I was the child least likely to become an educator.” A self-described high school dropout, Hale left school before graduation to be a teen mom and wife.
But Hale also remembers a moment when she realized, “You have a reason to do something with your life.” That moment led Hale back to school, earning her teaching degree at SOU, and, in the process, developing learning tools she still lacked. Those skills became the basis for a 20-year career at South Medford High School (originally Medford Mid High) as an English teacher, and later as an administrator.
Then in 2003, Hale was hired as principal for Phoenix High School, a school struggling with rapidly dwindling student enrollment.
For the dynamic Hale, it was a perfect opportunity. “I was given freedom,” she remembers. “We started with a new vision. And I started with the kids.” Hale’s personal journey put her on a unique footing to teach and challenge each student with an approach she describes as “keeping one foot in common sense.” Today, the school is thriving, with enrollment up and family and student participation at an all-time high.
It quickly becomes apparent that, for Hale, it’s not just about school statistics. Very few students pass her in the hallway without a greeting, a question or a listening ear and a call to do their best. The Commons at the school surrounds students with messages from past graduates, and a trophy case tracks Phoenix High School alumni around the globe.
Hale is proud of the school and how her students have accepted each challenge she presents, and she continues to raise the bar. “But not so high they can’t reach it,” she adds with a laugh.
From GED to high school principal, Hale sums up the potential she sees around her with a simple statement, “I think learning is fascinating.”
Phoenix High School
Building on Success with Students and Staff
(Mountain View Elementary and Lake Creek Learning Center: Instructional Coach)
Teaching has been both a family tradition and a childhood dream for Lorie Barber of Mountain View Elementary School in White City. “My Grandma Grace taught in a one-room schoolhouse in the 1920s…my dad taught kindergarten through high school seniors,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to be a teacher by the time I was in the fourth grade.” Barber grew up in Klamath Falls, and her family eventually moved to Kentucky where she received her teaching degree before returning to Oregon and completing her master’s degree at SOU.
Over her career, Barber has taught preschool to sixth grade in both private and public school settings. “I am inspired to teach because I believe in the infinite value of each child,” states Barber. “I want to help each child see the potential he has, and then excite him to work toward fulfilling his potential. They can trust me not to embarrass or humiliate them, but at the same time I hold them to high expectations for their behavior and their work.”
Barber’s classroom techniques center around using structured but varied methods to help students grasp new concepts and new skills, and she considers their success her success. “On the wall of my classroom for the past five years has been a banner that says, ‘Do your best today, and you’ll do better tomorrow,’” shares Barber. “I work to encourage even small steps so that students begin to experience success. Success breeds success.”
This fall, Barber began a new position as Instructional Coach for teachers and staff at Mountain View Elementary and Lake Creek Learning Center, and is excited to help teachers build on their successes too. “There is a tremendous wealth of knowledge and skill in every school,” says Barber, “and I want to utilize these teacher’s strengths to improve our school wide instruction.” For Barber, it’s the same focus, just at a new level. “Ultimately, my job is to positively impact student learning by positively impacting teaching.”
Mountain View Elementary
Lake Creek Learning Center