First-grade teacher Amy Leochner is Lakehoma Elementary's teacher of the year. The 2001 Mustang High School graduate has been with Mustang Public Schools for two years and has been teaching for nine.
Leochner attended the University of Oklahoma and earned a bachelor's degree in religious studies. She thought she would pursue counseling or teach high school or college.
In 2005, she started work on a master's degree in religion studies at the University of Kansas. She needed a job, and the school's child development center needed a preschool teacher.
Her graduate adviser was suggesting she enter a doctorate program or law school. The child development center director pushed her to consider working with elementary and preschool children.
“By the end of the two years there, it was like, ‘OK, I think I need to be with the little people and not working in secondary,' ” she said.
She returned to Oklahoma, took a job at an Edmond day care and began the alternative certification process. She finished in July 2008 and took an opening in an Oklahoma City school that needed a fifth second-grade class because of large class sizes.
“I walked into a classroom that was completely empty. The only things I had to teach with other than textbooks were things I had purchased with my own money."
“It was the first time I experienced what they experience every day, prejudice and racism,” she said. “It opened my eyes to that population and that community. I take that with me now. When I do my Great American research project with my class, I try to make it as diverse as possible so that way the students learn about another person's culture and struggles."
“Even though it was hard, we built a relationship. It opened my eyes about the importance of relationships because for me, that's the first thing I now do with any child," she said.
After working at the preschool in Kansas, her approach comes from child psychology. She stressed the difference in punishment and consequences. Punishment is taking away recess or writing sentences. The consequence for throwing a chair, for example, is putting it back where it belongs.
“If it's a fit of anger, we don't need to create this huge drama over it. I think that sometimes children look for this drama because that's how they believe the child/adult relationship works. For some children, it's retraining to show how healthy relationships work even though it might not be what they have known. I want the classroom to always feel like a safe and welcoming place, physically and emotionally."
Leochner moved on from that school to teach in Edmond and at a private school. She was hired in 2015 to teach at Lakehoma, the same elementary she attended, and has been a first-grade teacher the past two years.
“I wanted to see positive change in the world. For me, this happens by being hands-on with people, not studying it from afar," she said. “I'm living out my purpose by working with the children to guide them to be kind, compassionate world-changers who love learning."
Shannon Rigsby is communications officer for Mustang Public Schools.