by Brian Lamar, Assignment Editor
Going into work everyday for Pass Christian Elementary School third-grade teacher Gretchen Gegenheimer is filled with the challenges of balancing the expansion of young minds and horizons while drilling state testing requirements through rote memorization into young moldable minds.
Recently, all of Gegenheimer’s daily efforts were recognized as her peers selected her as her school’s teacher of the year and subsequently, she was selected by an impartial panel as the teacher of the year for the entire Pass Christian School District.
Gegenheimer, who is working toward her 21st year of teaching reflects on her motivation for doing her best every day and what got her interested in teaching in August 2000.
“My son was my motivation for teaching. I was originally planning to go into a field of psychology and after I had my son, I realized how much I loved children and I have learned from handling his special needs, I realized that is what I wanted to do. I want to be able to be an influence in the lives of as many children as I could,” Gegenheimer explained.
Through Gegenheimer’s career, she had a tendency to have the inclusion classroom where special needs students would be incorporated into her classroom for part of the day for traditional learning.
“I have a heart for special education because I look at kids through the lens of a parent who is trying to do what is best for the kids. I treat my classrooms like I would want my own children’s teacher to treat my children,” she said.
Gretchen harnesses the power of diversity in her teaching format. For her classroom, diversity is prevalent in all aspects. Due to the demographic nature of Pass Christian, there are students with multiple races, religions and financial backgrounds all in one class. According to Gegenheimer, those differences in backgrounds adds strength in layers to the fabric of her microcosm.
“We talk a lot about personal strengths and weaknesses. We focus on celebrating differences. We have kids who have families who are very well off and families who are not so well off and that adds to through provoking discussions ,” she said.
Regardless of their background, Gretchen’s infectious ear-to-ear smile and inquisitive sparkling green eyes seems like a window to her soul. The warm, open expression on her face when she explains her love for teaching her students shines through.
“I just love on them because they need to be loved on. They deserve respect and love because they are someone’s prized possession. For the short time I have them. I cherish them. They are our future and quite possibly someone’s best contribution to the world that they will make in their life. I try to make my time with them count and last. I want my kids to leave me feeling better about themselves and feeling more worthy than when they came into my classroom,” Gegenheimer explained.
Gretchen reflects on her more than 20 years in the classroom. She has now had two decades to watch children she taught in her first years grow up and become people she is proud to have had in her life.
“My former students are now at the point where they bring me their kids for me to meet. One particular student that stands out in my mind that makes me so proud is Bobby Hudson. Bobby was one of my kindergarten students. He had a bigger personality than the whole classroom combined. He is now involved in a lot of social justice programs here in the community and activism programs at the University of Mississippi. He is speaking up for people in his community and has a strong voice for others. He makes me really proud,” said Gegenheimer.
Gretchen looks back into her past and her education qualifications with a specialist degree in teaching administration to hopefully determine her future in teaching.
With her bachelor’s in elementary education from USM Gulf Park and Masters at William Carey’s Gulf Coast campus, Gegenheimer felt her career in the long term was set up for success, but her start was a bit rough.
“My first year of teaching. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I wish I could go back to those first years and give those students more of me. I feel sorry for the students in my first year or two of teaching. I felt like I was still figuring out what to do. Experience in the classroom teaches you things in a unique way,” she said.
She also looks through her career and notes the tremendous progress that the State of Mississippi has made in educating children.
“The fact that we focus so much more on primary grade reading is good. We have the literacy based promotion act and it has shown that we have grown more as a state and that students are reading at higher levels. We have raised our expectations so the kids have raised their performance,” she explained.
Gretchen hopes to move back into a leadership position. According to her, going back into the classroom after spending some time in leadership and curriculum development roles was fantastic for her to reconnect with what goes on in the classroom today. In the meantime, I want to work with other teachers and be a voice for others, she said.
Gretchen hopes to find a position where she can coach other teachers. “It is a form of teaching that pays dividends. I feel comfortable with coaching because I have seven years of experience with it,” she said.