Leochner named Teacher of the Year for Lakehoma Elementary
First-grade teacher Amy Leochner was named Lakehoma Elementary’s Teacher of the Year. The 2001 Mustang High School grad has been with Mustang Public Schools for two years, and has been teaching for nine.
Leochner went to the University of Oklahoma and earned her bachelor’s of religious studies in three-and-a-half years, thanks to Advanced Placement classes she took at MHS. She thought perhaps she would pursue counseling or teaching high school or college. In the fall of 2005, she started her master’s in religion studies with an emphasis in ethics at the University of Kansas. She planned to teach at the high school or college level when she graduated. In the meantime, she needed a job and the school’s child development center needed a preschool teacher.
Her graduate advisor was suggesting she enter a Ph.d program or law school. The child development center director was pushing her to consider working with elementary and pre-school aged children.
“By the end of the two years there, it was like, ‘Okay, I think I need to be with the little people and not working in secondary,” she said. “I fell in love with the rapid change that happens at this age. They’re little sponges. It may take a lot of practice, but once they get there, they get there and it’s fun to see that.”
She moved back to Oklahoma, took a job at an Edmond daycare and began the alternative certification process. She finished it in July 2008 and took an opening in a high poverty Oklahoma City school in October when they needed a fifth second grade class due to large class sizes.
“It was trial by fire,” she said. “I walked into a classroom that was completely empty. There were no teacher resources. The only things I had to teach with other than textbooks were things I had purchased with my own money.”
Leochner said they were second graders going on middle school because of the situations so many of them came from. The school was 100 percent free and reduced lunch and primarily African American and Hispanic.
“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."
Although it was her first year, the principal put one student with her in March because the other teachers couldn’t handle him. He would throw furniture in a rage and pepper her with obscenities. By the end of the year, he was different.
“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. “I would love it if you could read and write above your grade level, but my first goal is I want them to have a positive relationship with me because through that experience is how well they will learn. Because of that child, I now try to build a relationship with every child, no matter what was in their past."
Leochner said after working at the developmental preschool at Kansas University, 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.
“I think that’s one thing educators struggle with, particularly if you’re new and just out of college is that you have to have consequences but not a punishment,” she said. “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 the Edmond school district and at a private school. She was hired in 2015 to teach at Lakehoma Elementary, the same elementary school she attended and has been a first-grade teacher the last two years. It has been more rewarding for her than a Ph.D or law degree.
“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."