Teachers prepare for school

Elementary students across the Valley packed their bags, boarded the bus and started their first day of school today.

No doubt some will rejoice to see their friends, while others will bemoan the end of summer and the old grind of homework. Behind all the commotion though, behind the crowded hallways and shrieks of laughter, there are hundreds of educators who didn't have the same long summer vacation as their students.

"There's probably only a small window in July when there are no teachers in here," Minden Elementary Principal Ken Stoll said on Tuesday. "There's rarely a period in the summer when there are no teachers. That's just the nature of the beast. We've actually had teachers volunteer to come in and tutor students, which just shows their dedication."

Stoll is entering his seventh year as an administrator; the first batch of kindergartners he had as a principal will now be entering the sixth grade.

"It doesn't seem like it's been that long," he said. "I'm always excited about the new year. There are new challenges ahead, but we're ready to go forth and conquer."

As Stoll was busy in the front office, sixth-grade teacher Roxanne Usher was in her classroom preparing for 24 new students.

"I'm excited, but I can never let them see my nerves," she said.

It's Usher's first year with the Douglas County School District. In the late 1990s, she taught in Carson City, but later took a career break to raise her two kids, who now attend Gardnerville Elementary School. In fact, Usher's 7-year-old daughter had been helping her stack textbooks and school supplies on each student's desk.

"I have a lot of fun things planned, but I can't let the cat out of the bag," Usher said. "My goal is to have my students ready for middle school - that's a big change in their lives. Right now, I'm just going through stuff and setting it up the way I want it. It's exciting to have my own classroom again. It was hard to quit that."

Special education teacher Norma Hendricks doesn't have her own classroom, but rather has students spread across several grades. She was visiting with Usher on Tuesday morning.

"I look forward to seeing the kids and how they've changed," she said.

Hendricks described the first day of school as a honeymoon of sorts.

"They're so excited in the beginning; you really got to enjoy the moment," she said.

She said a teacher's instincts are never turned off.

"All summer you're thinking about what you can do. You're looking at things and how they'd work for one of your kids," Hendricks said. "We're a tight-knit school, a village. We work together and take responsibility for all kids."

Fifth/sixth-grade teachers Marlene Moyer and Claudia Bertolone-Smith know about working together. They team up their multi-age classes on a daily basis.

"We really try to make a class community for both groups," said Bertolone-Smith.

Moyer said students have a host of projects and events to look forward to this year, including a math circle program with a mathematics professor from University of Nevada, Reno, a monthly lecture series on the environment, and the study of ancient cultures.

She said all the projects will be fun, but will require numerous essays.

"Instead of shoving details into their brains, we want them to synthesize, to get that higher level of thinking, to see how everything is connected, how history is not just dead but that ancient cultures are connected to us."

Bertolone-Smith said kids today, surrounded by electronic media, are used to getting instant pay-offs.

"Hard work makes you smarter," she said. "We want to teach students that hard work pays off in the end, not always right away."

Sixth-grader Caitlyn Bidart, whose mother also works at the school, was in Moyer's class helping the teachers organize files. The 11-year-old student was in a multi-age class last year and is now taking the place of her graduated peers.

"It's kind of fun being the oldest," she said. "Kids look up to you and follow your example."

This year, Caitlyn is hoping to improve her math skills, and Moyer and Bertolone-Smith, who've both been at the school for more than five years, are hoping they can help Caitlyn reach that goal.

"I'm still always nervous on the first day," said Bertolone-Smith, who was Minden Elementary's teacher of the year last year. "What's it going to look like? Who are the new kids and what kind of help will they need? We can never prepare for all the variables."

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