May 07, 2012 12:00AM
As Tiffany Richard faced a room full of new teachers preparing for their first classrooms, Monday, she said she couldn’t help but think back to her first teaching assignment.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about my first students lately, because they were in Joplin,” Richard said.
Richard, a 1995 PSU graduate and the 2012 Kansas Teacher of the Year, spoke at Pittsburg State University’s Student Teacher Graduation ceremony. She related a story about her first class, at Joplin High School, and the most important lesson she learned, which came on her eighth day as a teacher.
That first class, applied biochemistry, was newly developed and was intended for students who had not done well in a traditional classroom. Recognizing that traditional teaching methods had not worked for her students, Richard said, she designed an outdoor activity in which each student played a role in the reaction she was teaching about. When Richard instructed one student, “Joe,” to hit her to begin the reaction, Joe punched the young teacher so hard it sent her reeling.
Instead of being angry at Joe, Richard said she wanted to understand why he acted the way he did and how her lesson plan could go so wrong.
“That’s when I started thinking about Joe not as a hit, but as an individual,” Richard said. “I needed to meet them (the students in her class) where they were in life.”
Richard told the new teachers that to be successful, they needed to care about each individual student.
“Our students must know that we care more about them than just their test scores,” she said. “When students know that you won’t let them down, they won’t let you down either.”
Richard acknowledged that “teaching is not easy” and along the way, each teacher faces many challenges.
“But do not lose sight of individual students in your classrooms,” she said.
Today, Richard is a biology and chemistry teacher at Olathe East High School in Olathe, Kan. She began her teaching career at Joplin High School and then moved to California, where she taught in El Segundo until returning to Kansas with her husband, Bryan, also a southeast Kansas native, and their two sons in 2003. She has taught in the Olathe school district since.
Children are born with a natural curiosity about the physical world around them, Richard said. “They want to know why the sky is blue or what makes a rainbow. But something happens by the time they get to high school and for many, biology and chemistry are seen as difficult and boring. My goal is to help them rediscover what it is they loved about science.”
Richard comes from a family of teachers. Her father, Bill Biggs, was superintendent at USD 246 from 1988 to 1997. Her mother, Martha, taught English at Northeast High School from 1993 to 1997. Both are PSU alumni.
Following Richard’s address and the awarding of medallions, the graduating students took the Teacher’s Oath. Commencement for students in the College of Education is scheduled for 8 p.m. on Friday, May 11, in the Weede Physical Education Building.