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Teacher of Year is product of Valley schools

by Merrie Leininger

This year’s Douglas County teacher of the year, Janell Sheets of Minden Elementary School, bet her students a pizza lunch that she wouldn’t receive the honor and had to pay up Thursday.

“They just kind of knew,” she said.

The former Douglas High School homecoming queen passed out pizza to those 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders who had faith in her teaching ability. But she also got free food that morning from her co-workers.

“They had a big breakfast spread for me this morning. I’m so touched they are so incredibly, genuinely happy for me,” she said after school the day after she was given the award at the Douglas County Education Foundation’s annual luncheon.

At that time, she was a little less composed. The people in the room shared in her excitement as she visibly shook and had trouble getting the thank-yous out.

“This is the first time I’ve been speechless,” she said.

Just minutes before, when Principal Klaire Pirtle announced she was the teacher of the year for MES, Sheets had thanked Pirtle for allowing her to be herself, even though she may be known as the MES teacher who always says what’s on her mind.

“She makes our life fun,” Pirtle said with a smile. “She is a completely rise-above-it kind of gal.”

Pirtle also read some comments from Sheets’ students.

“She never lies and makes us feel good.”

“She can draw a great butterfly.”

“She is very loud and wakes us all up.”

“She tells us we should be islands and stand up and say what we think, even if we have to stand alone.”

Sheets is quick to point out she shares those students with another teacher. Sheets has team-taught with Shari Chappell for three years.

“If I could cut it in half, I would. It’s our award. She brings out the best in me. I’m a better teacher because of her,” Sheets said.

The way she describes their classroom is “inspirational.”

“We are no-nonsense. We tell the students, ‘You are going to rise to this occasion because you have to,’ and they do. We try to balance academics and also inspire them, but at the same time, one of us will crack a joke and the whole classroom cracks up. They also know we’d lay in front of a train for them. It’s my hope that it’s a place they want to go to in the morning and they don’t want to leave in the afternoon,” Sheets said.

She said it’s that way for her.

“I’m so grateful I get to get up every day and go to work to a job I love – and to be honored for what I love to do is like I’ve died and gone to heaven,” Sheets said.

Sheets, 32, is married to her high school sweetheart, Michael Sheets, a property manager for Don Bently. They have been married for eight years and have two children, Bailey, 6, and Nolan, 5.

She says outside of school – and her other teaching job, that of Sunday school teacher at Carson Valley Christian Center – she just likes to spend time with her family. She credits her husband with a lot of her success as a teacher.

“He is my rock. He is just this stable, constant force in my life,” she said.

Sheets has taught at MES for five years and before that, taught at Scarselli Elementary School in the years after she returned from the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Sheets said getting the award from the same district where she went to school is even more special.

Although there have been a lot of negative things said about the district this year, Sheets said she doesn’t like to dwell on the negative.

“I really love what I do. I can’t say things couldn’t be better. You can’t find a job where things couldn’t be better. But I try to focus on ways I’m blessed in the workplace. It’s all about perspective,” Sheets said.

n Other schools. All the other schools in the district presented awards to their teachers of the year in funny and touching commentaries.

n C.C. Meneley Principal Brian Fraizer said many teachers nominated Cathy Hackler because she goes out of her way to help them become better teachers as a professional development trainer and differentiated instruction trainer.

“It’s nice to know I wasn’t just being annoying, but perhaps helped a few colleagues,” she said.

n Mary Whalen is an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Jacks Valley Elementary School, and, according to nomination letters from other teachers, a very caring individual.

“She really goes above and beyond the call of duty as a teacher. She goes to students’ homes, picks them up for activities, attends their activities even though they may not be school-related,” one wrote.

Whalen said she is proud to represent all of the teachers at JVES.

n Gardnerville Elementary Principal Dick Brownfield said Robbi Jacobsen gets votes every year.

“I work with a clearly talented group of teachers and to be chosen by them is something I will never forget,” Jacobsen said. “If I can just give back a fraction of what my teachers gave me, I think I will be completely fulfilled.”

n Pinon Hills Elementary Principal Nancy Bryant said Debbie Davis got an overwhelming number of votes this year.

“Her students are always really well-prepared as they leave her class. Her goal this year was personal responsibility for the students, and she met with each child every month to let them know where they were,” Bryant said.

n Scarselli Elementary School teachers voted Brenda Downs as their teacher of the year. Principal Betsy Palmer read notes from her peers.

“She is exceptionally skilled. She is an inspiration for all students. I don’t know a single student who leaves her classroom without a smile and feeling good about himself or herself.”

n Zephyr Cove Elementary School’s teacher of the year is not a teacher but counselor and psychologist Rowena Shaw, who is in her 20th year with the district.

Principal Robbie Robison said Shaw has implemented many programs for at-risk students and is doing even more so now because of the competencies.

“I am deeply grateful to the staff for recognizing counseling as important. I want to thank Robbie for the freedom to implement my programs. It still is a very rewarding career. It’s about the children. They make us laugh and they are very special people,” Shaw said.

n Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School teachers voted for two teachers of the year, Don Frensdorff and Tonya Randall.

Principal Charlie Condron called Randall the best foreign language teacher he has ever met.

He told the group he was lucky her father told her she had to get a job after college. She then got out the map and decided the small town of Minden would be nice because she could go skiing.

Condron said Frensdorff has a way with students that others look at as problems.

He said Frensdorff’s weight training class kept one student this year from being suspended.

“It is a direct result of the esteem Don builds in individuals. You want Don as your child’s P.E. teacher.”

n Carson Valley Middle School teacher of the year, Jennifer Norman, said she almost quit twice this year, but the leadership class that she started with 35 students this year kept her inspired and she learned to focus on her challenges, not on negatives.

Principal Rita Elliot commended the computer teacher for building the leadership class from scratch and “not letting problems stand in her way.”

n Douglas High School Principal Bev Jeans said Mike Schneider “makes kids graduate. He is the most exceptional teacher I’ve ever worked with.”

Schneider, who teaches remedial English and a technical writing class, got a little choked up when he talked about his students.

“This award is proof to anyone who questions the worthwhile of my students. They may not go to college or be in AP classes, but they’re awesome,” he said.

n Kingsbury Middle School Interim Principal Patty Fore called Cecilia Vaughn the staff’s Rock of Gibralter.

“I’ve been blessed to be at Kingsbury these past three years. We’re like a family. We hang together and we communicate together,” Vaughn said.

n Whittell High School Principal Howard Bennett introduced science teacher Al Haas, who has been honored as teacher of the year five times in his 32 years at the school. He said Haas pushes students farther than they ever thought they could go.

“The greatest test is students who come back year after year and say, ‘What you did put me in such a good place for my college classes. I hated you, but you helped me so much,'” Bennett said.

Haas joked that he learned his “torture” techniques from his years in Catholic schools.

“I never thought teaching would be so rewarding,” Haas said.