State’s Teacher of the Year had almost given up on her profession

After being named 2007 Kansas Teacher of the Year, Jeri Powers was back at work this week at Riverview Elementary School in the De Soto school district. Powers was instructing two of her supplemental reading students, Audrey Meachum, left, and Brianna Nicholson.

Just three years after she started teaching, Jeri Powers decided to leave education.

“What frustrated me is that I felt like I was not really good at anything,” she said. “I saw these students struggling with reading in the beginning of the year and they were still struggling at the end of the year.

“I just felt so defeated.”

It seems now she has come full circle.

Powers, now a reading specialist at Riverview Elementary School, recently was named Kansas Teacher of the Year by the Kansas State Department of Education. Riverview, which is in western Shawnee, is part of the De Soto school district.

As a stay-at-home mom for about 12 years, Powers credits her sons for getting her interested in teaching again, specifically reading.

“I noticed how my boys developed as readers, and they all developed differently,” she said. “They got me interested in reading again. That passion I had for teaching came back.”

So Powers returned to school and earned a master’s in teaching and leadership from Kansas University. During her graduate courses, Powers learned more about teaching reading, and the more she learned, the more passionate she became about the subject.

“That’s when it really became clear to me the reason why I struggled,” she said. “I did not have enough knowledge.”

Powers got a part-time job in the De Soto district working with 13 first-graders who were struggling to read.

Fast forward nine years, and Powers is Kansas Teacher of the Year and one of the driving forces behind how the De Soto district now teaches reading.

“I left teaching after three years going, ‘I’m not very good at this,’ thinking ‘Something is missing and I am not effective,'” she said. “It seemed very surreal this weekend.”

However, Powers won’t take all the credit.

“I think I was in the right place at the right time,” she said. “When I first came here, it was a small district and it very much valued grass-roots kinds of initiatives. I had a principal that very much valued my ideas.”

Not long after getting back into education, Powers and a colleague, Sandra Phillips, decided to write a grant for funds to experiment with the effects of a small reading group at Clear Creek Elementary School. They spent more than 100 hours working on the grant with the approval of then-Principal Cathy Grube. Grube later presented the grant to the superintendent.

“If Cathy Grube had not supported us that year, it would not have happened,” Powers said. “When you look back at your profession, everybody has one person that really believed in them, really supported them, and she was the one. I would not be here today – this is the honest truth – if she did not support me from the beginning.”

The small reading groups proved to be so successful that Grube had other teachers in the building come and watch how they were done. By the second semester, there was small-group reading instruction in all the classes at Clear Creek, Powers said.

At the end of the year the grant funds were gone, but the district decided to keep the program going. Now all elementary schools in the district have small-group reading instruction, which many know as the PRIDE program.

“It changed the way our district had done reading,” Powers said. “I could have had all the ideas, all the things I wanted to do, but if there had not been a climate in the district that welcomed those ideas or a principal that said ‘I’m going to support you, go for it,’ it wouldn’t have happened.”

Beginning in January, Powers will take a leave of absence for a semester to travel the state with the Kansas Teacher of the Year finalists. They will discuss their experiences with their districts and get feedback from other educators on different practices in the state. The team also will visit colleges to speak with college students about education.

“Those college students need to be encouraged, and they need to be given a more fair perspective of teaching,” Powers said. “The teacher shortage is real, and we are going to feel the hurt of that in the next couple of years.”

Powers received a $4,000 cash award and $16,000 for an education technology package for her classroom.

Before she was named as Kansas Teacher of the Year, Powers was nominated as district teacher of the year by students, parents and colleagues at her school. District finalists then went on to a regional level, where Powers was named a finalist. She also will be eligible to be named National Teacher of the Year.

This marks the second time in four years the De Soto district has had a teacher named Kansas Teacher of the Year. Keil Hileman, a teacher at Monticello Trails Middle School, was named Kansas Teacher of the Year in 2004 and later was named a finalist for National Teacher of the Year.