OURAY – Students, teachers and parents are walking around the halls of the Ouray School in a daze this week, not just because of finals, and the predictable end-of-the-school-year chaos, but because they cannot imagine how school will go on as three beloved teachers – Sandy Kern, Di Rushing and Nancy Nixon – prepare to retire.
Together, these three women have spent a combined 86 years teaching in the Ouray School and become so integral to its culture that it is almost impossible to imagine the place staggering on without them. And yet, it is happening.
As Nixon put it: “Change is good.”
That has really been Nixon’s mantra ever since coming on board at the Ouray School in 1983. Nixon taught virtually every subject, from English to Algebra, and at every level, from preschool to high school, before landing the long-lasting gig of media specialist that has kept her busy for the past 19 years.
Her domain is the school library, where she gets to do what she loves best – interact with students of all ages (without having to grade English papers). Always an innovator who is at home in the world of technology, Nixon 13 years ago started teaching film classes, and pioneered KURA, a cutting-edge, low-power radio station at Ouray School that is still on the air today, run completely by her students.
But perhaps Nixon’s most lasting legacy at the Ouray School is her dual role as speech coach and drama teacher. Since getting started in 1985, she has mounted 29 high school plays – one for each year from 1985 to 2013 – including gut-wrenching heavy-hitters like Dead Man Walking and over-the-top musical comedies such as Little Shop of Horrors and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. She has also taken 10 of her speech kids to nationals.
This summer, she will take her 11th: McKinley Mueller. In a funny twist of fate, the national competition will be held this year in Nixon’s home town of Kansas City, and the event in which Mueller will be competing – dramatic interpretation – will actually be held in Nixon’s old high school. Among the judges will be her brother John, a professional actor.
It’s got Nixon scolding herself for thinking in cliches like “coming full circle.”
“When you are almost to the point of teaching the grandchildren of the students you once taught, it’s time to move on,” she said. “It’s all about the timing.”
DO THE MATH
A sign in Sandy Kern’s classroom says, “Math isn’t just a 4-letter word.” For Kern, those are words to live by.
Kern’s long and varied association with the Ouray School began when she was elected to the Ouray School Board in 1981. She remained a school board member for the next 24 years, until the state law changed and she was term-limited. During her tenure, she served as board secretary for 12 years, and then turned her meticulous mathematical mind toward the task of helping to manage the school’s finances as board treasurer.
At about the time she got elected to the school board, she also began subbing for the district. Once her aptitude for teaching advanced math became known, she was asked to start instructing on a part-time basis.
Thus, she entered the practically-uncharted waters of being a school board member and a teacher at the same time. It turned out to be a good mix. “I was always able to advocate for the teachers,” she reflected. “And, I always told the board members that they needed to sub in the school” to understand the challenges teachers face.
There have only been two times when she felt uncomfortable walking into the school building. – one had to do with the board’s decision not to rehire a teacher, and the other had to do with a contract non-renewal for a superintendent with whom the school board couldn’t come to financial terms.
By 1989, Kern started teaching college-concurrent calculus, often to only one or two students at a time (including her own son and daughter).
Kern’s tenure as a teacher at Ouray School has outlasted nine superintendents – some great, and others not so much. She even served a stint as half-time superintendent herself, from 2006 to 2009, when the school was flush with students and money, and was experimenting with having “two and a half” administrators (herself, plus two principals).
By that time, her course load had also picked up to the point where she was teaching half-time – everything from Algebra 1 to Calculus.
“My husband and I didn’t see each other much over those three years,” she laughed.
Over the years, Kern has seen enrollment fluctuate from as few as 150 to as many as 250 students. She has seen the school’s policy book double in size as more state mandates have come along (for a long time, the “policy book” lived on floppy disks on her computer at home), and has witnessed the school’s “budget” expand from a single-sided piece of paper to a complex maze of numbers… all of which, in her mind, make perfect sense.
Even though she’s been off the school board for a decade, Kern hardly ever misses a meeting, sitting in the back of the room with her knitting, quietly steering the ship back on course from time to time with her knowledge of numbers and historical context.
While Ouray School has had its rough spells over the years, she said, the thing that has always come through in the end is that “everything is about the kids.”
THE QUEEN OF STUDENTS
Di Rushing, too, has had the experience of being both a teacher and administrator at the same time.
Short and sweet, with a backbone of steel, a Southern accent to die for, and an uncanny ability to connect with teenagers (no matter how scary they seem), Rushing started subbing at the Ouray School in 1991 and was hired as a full-time high school English teacher the following year.
She still remembers the question that sealed the deal. Then-school board president Rich Tisdel asked her, “What book is on your nightstand?”
“It was Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth,” published in 1989 about the building of a cathedral in the town of Kingsbridge, England, Rushing recalled. Turns out, Tisdel was reading the same book. Rushing got the job.
In those early years, she taught high school English, journalism, and “year book.” By 1995, she had added psychology to the mix.
“Positive psychology,” she emphasized. “That’s the science of happiness.” The study is based on three tenets: the importance of ritual and setting aside time for that which is truly important; gratitude (not just for the big stuff but the little stuff too); and acts of kindness.
Thus, her students keep gratitude journals in which they write three things for which they are thankful every day, and look forward to “Zen Thursdays,” when they bring in blankets, pillows and meditation music, and sprawl on the floor or on top of desks to simply relax.
“It’s one 50-minute period a week where they don’t have to function on a high level,” Rushing explained.
As an English teacher, Rushing said, the most important thing she does is have her students read every night. Not necessarily heavy-duty literature (that gets tackled strictly in the classroom), but “books that the kids will want to read.” Books that will get them thinking globally.
Three years ago, during a time when the school was going through difficult financial straits, Rushing cut back on her teaching load to become a part-time administrator, or as she likes to put it, the “Queen of Students.”
It was a natural fit. She has approached her administrative role with a typical mix of intellect and heart, standing outside the school entrance with Superintendent Scott Pankow every morning, and greeting every student who comes through the door. She often gives them a big hug.
The role has come with its challenges – “It’s hard to be in the position of counseling as well as disciplining,” she reflected. And so, she approaches “discipline” from its classical definition, as an opportunity “to teach.”
The Ouray School held a special award ceremony in honor of Rushing, Nixon and Kern last Saturday. Each teacher was recognized for her remarkable contributions. Each was also conferred a special honor.
The Ouray School stage will be named after Nixon, and a special bench in the playground will be dedicated to Kern. Meanwhile, the school board has promised to restore the crumbling cement wall out in front of the school, face it with stone, and christen it the “Di Rushing Wall of Support.”
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