Mustang Trails Elementary named Renee Hopper as the school's Teacher of the Year. The quiet mother of three and grandmother to be spends her days covering the required curriculum, getting kids excited about science and math and teaches cursive as a bonus because the kids love it so much. She was honored to be chosen Teacher of the Year but would prefer for the focus to be on her class instead.
"It's such an honor, but it's also hard," she said. "I don't like talking about myself."
She originally planned to go to college for psychology, but she married and started a family. The delay worked. When it was time to pick a major, she realized what she should choose. She had played "school" all her life.
"It seems like I've always taught," she said. "It was just a natural for me."
She took her first job in Maud, Oklahoma before moving to a dependent K-8 school in Shawnee teaching first grade.
"It was very small and tight knit," she said. "Moving here was a completely different world. I had to spend a lot of time adjusting. I stayed until 8 or 9 at night every night for my first two years and then worked on weekends. I was teaching second grade at the time, so I had to change everything."
Hopper has since moved to third grade at Trails Elementary. Helping the children learn to read simple books in first grade has been replaced with chapter books and introductions to algebra and geometry. Her favorite subjects to teach are math and science. She finds the students will go home and research a lesson on their own. Some even write a paper voluntarily to hand in.
"Science is so much fun," she said. "They love getting into the hands-on activities with the lab experiences. It's nice to be able to stretch their brains and help them think about why things happen. We can get into deep thinking and the kids really get into how we can extend those activities. They get really excited. I think that's what I love so much - how excited they are and how much the love it. That's what I want to see: kids who are happy learners."
While the academics are important, it's only one part of the equation. She remembers one girl from a first grade class. She walked in the door crying every day. She wouldn't talk to the kids and she wouldn't talk to Hopper. At recess, she stood on the playground by herself. Hopper understood what it was like to be the quiet kid in class.
"I worked with her through the year and watching her come out of her shell was amazing. I remember sitting on the playground and she came up, so excited to tell me something that had happened. She was smiling and playing with the other kids. That's really the biggest reason why I'm here, to help kids, and not just with academics. I love being able to help them, especially those kids who maybe are not accepted and are withdrawn."
Hopper said a teacher doesn't leave her job at the front door when she goes home at night. There's an endless set of checklists she runs through in her head. Was the homework too hard? Were they stressed? Did they parents understand how much they mattered to their children and how much they contributed to helping their students reach the next level?
"Our job never really ends," Hopper said. "We love their kids and we're doing everything we can. We are always thinking about their kids. They're our kids too for a year. It's hard to let them go when they leave for the next grade."
Hopper is one of 14 site Teachers of the Year for Mustang Schools. One will be named the District Teacher of the Year in March.