Ryan Christoffer, Highland Elementary

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Position: 4th grade teacher

Years Teaching: 11 years

Hobbies/Interests: I love to be outdoors. My hobbies include hunting, fishing, camping, coaching softball, and reading. The best part about my hobbies is I am able to share them with my family.

What do you enjoy most about teaching? I enjoy seeing the growth students make from the beginning of the year to the end.

What do you find most challenging about teaching? The learning process is unpredictable, but that is also what makes the job fun and rewarding.

Best tip for new teachers: Engage, engage, engage! Think of how you will engage students in the learning first! Then, develop the lesson.

Best tip for career teachers: Never stop learning, there will always be more to learn. The impact on students is worth the work.

Favorite piece of advice for students: Embrace the challenge, make mistakes that is when learning happens.

What being a Gold Star Teacher means to you: I am honored to be recognized as a Gold Star teacher. Winning this award means that I have earned the respect of the students and families I have the privilege to serve. I have been blessed to work with amazing teachers and mentors over the years who helped me to develop as an educator. Teaching is all about the team, so this is a Highland Award as much as an individual award!

Gail Farber, Lincoln Elementary

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Position: English Language Development Specialist

Years Teaching: 36 years

Hobbies/Interests: Olympic reader and lover of science fiction and mysteries; furniture re-finisher; hoping to become a kayaker

What do you enjoy most about teaching? I enjoy connecting with students and sparking interest in subjects they don’t think they like! I enjoy learning about my students’ cultures and experiences, and I enjoy seeing their pride when they talk about their traditions and history. I also love being part of a caring team, all of whom are focused on the well-being and education of our kids.

What do you find most challenging about teaching? Misunderstanding about the second language acquisition process (from fellow teachers, parents, and students themselves) sometimes causes expectations to be either too high or too low. Guiding, meeting, and interpreting those expectations can be a challenge.

Best tip for new teachers: Students will work for you if they know you care about them. Build relationships, and be real.

Best tip for career teachers: Continue to share your excitement about learning with your students. Your passion is contagious!

Favorite piece of advice for students: Learning is not a passive process; you need to take ownership. Remember the words of Brooks Fulbright: “You are not responsible for where you come from, but you are responsible for where you end up in life.”

What being a Gold Star Teacher means to you: Being awarded the Gold Star is a humbling experience. I have been so touched by the good wishes, affirmations, and congratulations I’ve received; and though I never expected to get this kind of recognition–It’s hard to be singled out, especially when I consider the creative, talented, dedicated, and amazing people it has been my pleasure to work with!!–the Gold Star is a very sweet note on which to end my professional teaching career.

Denise Aalderks, Aldrich Elementary

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Position: 5th grade teacher

Years Teaching: 27 years

Hobbies/Interests: I enjoy golfing, kayaking, long walks, spending time with family and friends, and traveling.

What do you enjoy most about teaching? There is no doubt that what I enjoy most about teaching are my students and coworkers! Also, I appreciate the opportunity to live and learn alongside the students and staff. Teaching provides me the opportunities to do what I love while working in a school with amazing students, families and staff. The energy and enthusiasm they all bring to school makes my job the best in the world!

What do you find most challenging about teaching? My biggest challenge is the fact that there never seem to be enough time in a day to fit everything in. Teachers have many responsibilities which all take time, energy, and enthusiasm to be completed in a quality way.

Best tip for new teachers: Teaching is not just a job or career: it’s a lifestyle. Do not underestimate the power of building relationships with ALL of your students. Strong student and parent relationships help motivate students to learn both inside and outside of the classroom.

Best tip for career teachers: Embrace every opportunity to collaborate with all of your staff by sharing ideas and supporting each other. Work hard to be social, reflective, and always look for ways to improve. Our best resources are each other.

Favorite piece of advice for students: Have FUN learning! School is a safe place where you should take risks, ask questions, learn new things and get involved in as many opportunities as you possibly can. Always be the best you can be!

What being a Gold Star Teacher means to you: I feel incredibly honored to be selected as a Gold Star Teacher. Thank you to my family, friends, students, and all of my past and current colleagues who have helped shape my teaching journey. It has truly been a privilege to work with such terrific students, staff and parents. They all helped me along the way in becoming the person and teacher that I am.

Alex Conyers, West High School

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Position: Science teacher / Science department head

Years Teaching: 9 years

Hobbies/Interests: Card and Board Games, Host Pub Trivia and Open Mic Comedy Nights (used to?), Graphic Design

What do you enjoy most about teaching? The fast pace and constant problem solving. I enjoy the performance aspect of teaching as well. You can be silly and vulnerable for young people and they appreciate it in a way that adults no longer do. I enjoy the challenge of constantly learning alongside my students it certainly makes me a much more dynamic individual. As a teacher I have the opportunity to make a huge impact. The combined potential of all the students I’ve taught is staggering. I hope that I have given them the skills to seek truth in a world of increasing confusion and inspired some to tackle the existential crises that we face.

What do you find most challenging about teaching? There is never enough time to do that job. It isn’t something you ever complete. Every teacher has to prioritize some work and compromise on something else. At any point in the day a teacher can ask themselves “is there some work I should be doing?” and there is always some initiative to implement, paper to grade, lesson plan to submit, email to respond to, letter of recommendation to draft, or (in my case) glassware to clean.

Best tip for new teachers: Seek out these things: 1. Continuous learning opportunities during the summer and ways to involve yourself in the school. 2. A group of teachers that challenge you to improve your instruction. (Look inside and outside your department. It may come from continuous learning opportunities too.) 3. A wealth of diverse resources from different sources and educational philosophies until you find a model and instructional resources that work for you. Then critically examine the pile each year and find the gold or polish what you have into it.

Best tip for career teachers: I’m hesitant to act like I could teach other “career teachers” as their advice and mentoring is what carried me to this point in my career. So instead I’ll provide two things that I try to stay vigilant of in my classroom.

1. This is my classroom but the instruction is not for me. It doesn’t matter what I think should be successful, easy, fun, etc. the bottom line is how the student feels about the instruction. If you can inspire students to take some ownership of their learning by providing them with choice and worthwhile tasks you will see them exceed your expectations. Nothing that “works” works for every student every time. Students are much more likely to fall outside your expectations when the sandbox you present is shipping box sized.

2. For a few years I avoided group presentations because the students were terrible at them. Later I realized my philosophy was backwards. I think a lot of teachers operate under a misguided view that if students in their classroom never experience discomfort, or confusion, if their curriculum moves students effortlessly from point A to B then they have a model classroom. It was later in my career that I realized students deserve to feel discomfort both socially and academically, they need to witness something tried and failed, and they need more opportunities to practice the things at which they are the worst. Vary your instruction to keep the kids guessing and curious about what class will look like today. Lean into the things they are worst at rather than avoiding them. Responsible push students towards roles and activities that cause them discomfort.

Favorite piece of advice for students: I’ve struggled to put it in a friendlier way but what I’d like to communicate to students (and sometimes colleagues) is that their lack of preparation is not my crisis. This is not to say that I don’t procrastinate too, but procrastination among my students it is the bane of my professional life. As teachers we work hard to plan ahead and give students assignments with ample time to complete them. Our intention is that they will do the assignment in pieces spread out over multiple days, not in a flurry two hours before midnight the day it is due. So please don’t complain about, or expect me to save you from your lack of sleep, “all-nighters”, and high level of stress. You signed up for all that when you disregarded the first piece of advice.

What being a Gold Star Teacher means to you: I love my job, my students, and my school. From personal observation I know that not many people can say that about their careers. So in a lot of ways I am rewarded everyday of my life. That being said it is nice to receive this recognition because teaching certainly involves a lot of long hours, hard work, and personal sacrifice. The success I’ve experienced wouldn’t have been possible without the sacrifices my wife has had to support my career. I’ve also benefited from a lot of great mentoring through teachers past and present, my undergrad work at UNI, and the RET program at ISU. It is an honor to win this award for my families at both East and West High School in Waterloo. So many of the teachers, administrators, and staff have shown me overwhelming care and support throughout my career.

Rebecca Lins, Peet Junior High School

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Position: School Counselor

Years Teaching: 15 years

Hobbies/Interests: I enjoy running, traveling, shopping, scrap-booking, coffee with friends, walks and kayaking with family, watching movies and reading.

What do you enjoy most about teaching? The KIDS, the community and the culture of learning! Our school is like a family, a home away from home, I love being a part of a team! I love kids that make seeing you a part of their day. I enjoy seeing students grow through the culture we have created at Peet to find their strengths and overcome obstacles! I love the opportunity to come alongside students during hardship and help them navigate towards success with confidence.

What do you find most challenging about teaching? As a school counselor, I find the biggest challenge in ensuring every student’s physiological, safety and emotional needs are met. We can only control what happens within our school building and we cannot undo trauma that some of our students have unfortunately experienced.

Best tip for new teachers: My tip for a first year counselor would be that you do not have to conquer it all in year one! The most important piece is getting to know your students, learn every single student’s name so that you can call them by it. Build relationships and give yourself grace. Work to establish a comprehensive school counseling program small step by small step and see how you can be an asset to your school team!

Best tip for career teachers: My tip for a career counselor would be to practice self-care because compassion fatigue is real. Find the balance that makes you thrive in your various roles at home and at school! We are lifelong learners, therefore, continue to challenge yourself to grow as a leader, advocate and collaborator all to create positive systemic change for students!

Favorite piece of advice for students: “Be somebody that makes everybody feel like a somebody.” – Kid President

What being a Gold Star Teacher means to you: It is such an honor to be chosen as a Gold Star Teacher! There are so many phenomenal educators in the Cedar Valley, I feel truly humbled to be among this group of ten. My husband and my mom are two of the best educators I have ever known, I have learned so much from them about passion for excellence and love for kids! My mom taught in Waterloo Schools for 26 years. As a child, I remember her applying for this same award. Now that her health has declined with ALS, this honor means the world to me as I feel like I am living out her legacy in education and I am making her so very proud. This award means that my passion for kids and desire to help them become the best version of themselves is having a positive impact. Being named a Gold Star Teacher is representative of all the people that have greatly impacted me and have been a part of my learning, past and present! A big thank you to McElroy Trust, KWWL, my Peet family, K-12 Counseling team and to Cedar Falls Schools for investing in and supporting me since I was a small kindergartner at Lincoln Elementary.

Rebecca Keeling, Blessed Maria Assunta Pallota Middle School

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Position: 6th grade science and math teacher

Years Teaching: 41 years

Hobbies/Interests: Reading, knitting, spending time with my granddaughters and other family members, and taking my oldest granddaughter shopping.

What do you enjoy most about teaching? Seeing the joy in students eyes when they understand a concept. Student’s smiling faces as they enter the classroom. Collaborating with the other teachers and staff at Cedar Valley Catholic Schools.

What do you find most challenging about teaching? The most challenging area in teaching for me is finding the time to prepare a rigorous curriculum based on Iowa Standards for every student. I do not want to see students fall through the cracks. They are the future.

Best tip for new teachers: Practice patience, love, faith in yourself and acceptance towards all. Don’t give up!!!

Best tip for career teachers: Keep persevering and think out of the box, you make a difference in all the lives of your students.

Favorite piece of advice for students: Remember there are no wrong questions, keep asking!!!

What being a Gold Star Teacher means to you: I am having a hard time expressing how I feel. This is an amazing award for doing something that I feel very passionate about. I feel very proud to represent Cedar Valley Catholic Schools. This is my second home where I can share my knowledge, faith, discipline and stewardship with students, parents, staff and community. I humbly thank everyone, especially my students for this award.

Ashley Hager, Cunningham Elementary

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Position: 2nd grade teacher

Years Teaching: 6 years

Hobbies/Interests: I enjoy being creative and crafting. I love to be outside with my family. Anything with my family is my favorite!

What do you enjoy most about teaching? The thing I love most about teaching is building relationships with students and their families and making lifelong impacts.

What do you find most challenging about teaching? The hardest part of teaching for me is to remember not to stretch myself too thin. Knowing I can’t do EVERYTHING by myself is often hard for me to remember. Although they say teachers are superheros, I often put unrealistic expectations upon myself to reach every single student… and sometimes I just can’t do that by myself. I have been working on reaching out to other supports before I overwhelm myself.

Best tip for new teachers: Find your balance. You will obviously need to bring work home some nights, but don’t do that every night. You might need to come into work an hour early here and there, but don’t do it every day of the week. Make time for yourself and your interests you have outside of school. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so don’t let yourself get to “E”!

Best tip for career teachers: Never forget why you feel in love with teaching. Write it down and look at it daily as a reminder.

Favorite piece of advice for students: Your education is the ONE thing someone can’t take away from you. No one can steal the knowledge that is in your brain. Take ownership of your learning!

What being a Gold Star Teacher means to you: Being a Gold Star Teacher means I am recognized as being one of the best of the best. It means my efforts and my dedication to my career have been appreciated and felt by those around me. Being named a Gold Star Teacher is a reminder I am doing exactly what I was put on this earth to do… impact the lives of children. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in teaching for 25+ years or 6 years; it doesn’t take long for children to see that you love and care about them.

Nicole Davis, Hudson Schools

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Position: 5th-12th grade band teacher

Years Teaching: 8 years

Hobbies/Interests: Reading, baking, going on walks with my husband and my dog, playing in local municipal bands, and spending time with family and friends.

What do you enjoy most about teaching? One of the joys of my classroom is how band is the creative outlet for many of my students. Being able to see them create beautiful music from nothing and watch how they embody that experience is inspiring! I constantly learn from my students every day- to be given the opportunity to teach them is a blessing.

What do you find most challenging about teaching? Balancing my home and work life, and having enough time in the day to be able to provide all of the opportunities I want to for my students.

Best tip for new teachers: Build relationships with your students. It is truly important to have that trust and mutual respect- not only for the sake of learning in the classroom, but also for them to know that you care and that they can reach out to you for help whenever they need it.

Best tip for career teachers: This goes for new teachers as well- don’t be afraid to ask for help! Utilize your colleagues and teachers from other districts, and never stop your own professional development. Attend conferences, have phone discussions, bring in clinicians- learn something new every year to bring back to your kids.

Favorite piece of advice for students: When you commit to something- dig in. Never settle to accomplish something at a mediocre level- you can always keep striving to improve yourself and what you do!

What being a Gold Star Teacher means to you: I am very honored to have been chosen for this award! I am incredibly lucky to be able to work with the amazing students, staff, and parents in my current (and former) school districts. Several of my former teachers who I look up to greatly received this award, so this means an incredible amount to me. To me, being a Gold Star Teacher means being committed to your students and your district, supporting your students through their needs and challenges, and working to help students achieve at their very best.

Sherry Parker, DG Elementary

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Position: 2nd grade teacher 

Years Teaching: 25 years

Hobbies/Interests: Exercising, watching all sports, puzzles, time with family and friends

What do you enjoy most about teaching? The people – I get to work with the best teachers, staff, and students. Every day I try to learn something new about every student in my classroom. I want each student to feel like their time in my room is the best part of their day.

What do you find most challenging about teaching? The most challenging AND rewarding part of teaching is discovering what each individual student needs to be the most successful person they can be, and then stepping back and watching them become independent, successful, and proud.

Best tip for new teachers: Know that you do not need to be the smartest person in the room. Learn from other teachers and from all of your students. Find out what each student is passionate about and let them shine at just the right time.

Best tip for career teachers: Teachers work hard learning and perfecting ways to best teach the curriculum. Find ways to enhance the curriculum with as much fun as possible. Students will remember the fun brought to the classrooms.

Favorite piece of advice for students: Get to know everyone in your class. Look for ways to be kind. Take pride in everything you do. Try new things and never be afraid to look silly. Shine and share your talents. Always find time to laugh.

What being a Gold Star Teacher means to you: Being named a Gold Star Teacher is an honor. It is an opportunity to thank and represent everyone who has helped me over the years. This award represents the amazing school districts I have been a part of. It represents all of the brilliant, caring, helpful teachers/staff that have shared with and helped me every day. It represents every student I have taught over the years, each has made every school day meaningful, memorable, and fun. And it represents my family that supports me and makes it possible for me to do the job I love every day. I am very proud to be a Union Knight. Thank you for this honor.



Ryan Lehmann, Lowell Elementary

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Position: 2nd grade teacher

Years Teaching: 6 years

Hobbies/Interests: Golf, Movies, Spending time with family and friends, attending UNI basketball and football games

What do you enjoy most about teaching? Everyday is a new adventure! You never know what is going to happen from one day to the next. The students are always full of surprises!

What do you find most challenging about teaching? Finding the time to fit it all in. There is so much to do each day and so much content to learn that managing the time to fit it all in and do it how I feel it should be done can be quite challenging some times.

Best tip for new teachers: Build those relationships with each kid from day 1! When the students know that you genuinely care about them, they will give you so much more!

Best tip for career teachers: Ask for help! Sometimes you might feel silly asking a question that you think that you should already know, but it’ll make things a lot easier. Good teachers are not only there each day to help the students, but we are there to help each other succeed as well.

Favorite piece of advice for students: It’s okay to make mistakes and take chances. It’s the only way we really learn!

What being a Gold Star Teacher means to you: It’s an amazing accomplishment that I will always be incredibly proud of. It also creates a sense of responsibility and a challenge for me going forward to prove each and every day that I am deserving of this title.