Cache Educator Chooses Teaching Over Practicing Law

May 17 is National Graduation Tassel Day and POE celebrates Oklahoma’s graduating seniors, as well as the many sponsors like Arletta Stewart who help coordinate graduation and baccalaureate ceremonies.

For the past 10 years, Mrs. Stewart has been making sure the seniors at Cache High School experience a memorable graduation.

“I love watching the students graduate, but a lot of work happens behind the scenes to ensure things run smoothly,” Mrs. Stewart said. “I am the liaison between the students and Jostens for their caps, gowns and announcements. I help with the programs and make sure each student has the correct symbols for their awards. I also double check the senior panel to match up each student’s name with their respective photograph.

“And don’t forget practice,” Mrs. Stewart said. “We practice for both processions.”

Mrs. Stewart considers it a source of pride to have so many graduations under her belt, despite working evenings and weekends on these special events. “I want them to get the recognition they deserve,” she said.

“When students ask me why I went into teaching I say, ‘I’d rather make a difference in your life in the classroom than in the courtroom.’”

arletta Stewart

Speaking of recognition, the faculty at Cache High School recently surprised Mrs. Stewart with a shadow box of the tassels she has collected throughout the years. 2022 marks her 11th year as a graduation sponsor so she’ll soon be making room in her shadow box for tassel No. 11.

Known as Momma Stu among many of Cache’s 133 graduating seniors, she’ll tell you she is blessed to be a teacher and graduation sponsor. She finds teaching to be an incredibly fulfilling career. However, she has not always enjoyed going to work.

Mrs. Stewart obtained her law degree from the University of Oklahoma Law School, and began her career as a lawyer. She loves the study of law and taught business law as an adjunct professor, but doesn’t love the practice of law.

The lawyer turned teacher became alternatively certified in 2006. During her 16 years in education, she has taught U.S. history, mythology and world history. She has served as the curriculum team leader for the social studies department, served as history club sponsor, coached the academic team, and was the gift and talented sponsor.

Sixteen years, 1,600 students and maybe 200 recommendation letters later, Mrs. Stewart said she can see the difference she’s made. When a student doesn’t like school, she’ll encourage them to attend a competition where she believes they will excel.  Before they know it, the student places in the competition. This gives them an extra boost to do well in school.

“I love to teach,” Mrs. Stewart said. “I am so much happier teaching that I don’t want to ever go back to practicing law. “When students ask me why I went into teaching I say, ‘I’d rather make a difference in your life in the classroom than in the courtroom.’”

A Life Changing Decision to Become a Teacher

A Mom’s Desire to Spend Time with Children Leads to another Generation of Teachers

Twenty-five years ago Cindy Chuculate made a decision to leave the business world and enter the field of education. Her insurance career consumed her life and left little time to spend with her children.

She’s the first to tell anyone that switching careers to become a teacher was one of the best decisions she’s ever made.

Math was Mrs. Chuculate’s strong suit and upon graduating from Northeastern State University she become an adjuster. For nine years, she worked long hours in the insurance industry.

“As an insurance adjuster, I had quite a few counties to cover in my territory in Northeast Oklahoma. If anything happened in one of my counties, I handled it. I was working night and day,” Mrs. Chuculate said. “I had a home office and my two little kids would always ask, ‘Mom, Are you working tonight again?’ And it just hit me. I needed a job that would allow me to have time with my children. I missed out on so many things at that time in their lives.”

Cindy Chuculate in her computer lab at Salina High School.

With her math degree, Mrs. Chuculate already took several education courses. After investigating her options, she found out that it would only take her one semester of classes to obtain an education degree. She decided to go back to school. After graduating, she continued her studies to earn a master’s in Educational Leadership.

Mrs. Chuculate’s children weren’t the only driving force in her decision to become a teacher. Her grandmother was an educator and also tried to steer her in the same direction.

“My grandmother taught elementary school and always wanted me to teach, especially history. History was my least favorite subject so there’s no way that was going to happen,” Mrs. Chuculate said. “However, one of my best friends talked about how my grandmother had a positive influence on her. I thought if my grandmother really made a good influence on one of my best friends then maybe I could make a good influence on children too.

“Teaching was perfect for me. My son just started kindergarten and my daughter was seven when I became a high school teacher,” she said. “I was able to be off every time they were out of school so I could take care of them. I could go to everything that they were involved in at school and hardly missed any activities.”

Originally hired at Jay High School, Mrs. Chuculate would have to drive about an hour to work from her hometown of Pryor. This would almost defeat the purpose of being able to spend time with her children. Fortunately, there was an opening at nearby Salina High School, but she didn’t want to go back on her word once she accepted the position at Jay.

“I gave my word to the Superintendent at Jay and committed to teaching there so I didn’t think too much of the job in Salina,” she said. “The Superintendent was a family friend and knew about the job in Salina. He visited with the Principal in Salina and they decided that Salina High School would be a better place for me. I knew right off the bat that I made a great decision coming to Salina. The small-town atmosphere has been unbelievably positive for me. I became a single parent when my kids were in first and third grade, and the community helped raise my kids. My kids would be in the gym running around while I was coaching, and everybody knew not to let them go outside.”

Mrs. Chuculate has had a successful career at Salina, teaching Geometry and Algebra II the majority of her career. She also coached slow pitch and fast pitch softball, volleyball and basketball. During the last eight years, she’s taught a computer class and Microsoft Office. She also oversees the newspaper, broadcasting and the yearbook.

Cindy Chuculate and her daughter Chali Kingfisher at Salina High School during PJ week.

“I have 10 students in the newspaper class; one is a senior and the rest are juniors. They’re really a delight to have in class. From senior class profiles to interviewing coaches and taking photographs, the students are involved in sharing the news of the school.”

After all these years, Mrs. Chuculate still loves teaching.

“My message would be to do something that you love because money isn’t everything,” she said. “I found out I really have a passion for teaching.”

That passion for teaching has flowed over to her children as both of them are now teachers and coaches. At one point, all three members of the family were teaching at Salina High School in adjacent rooms.

“My daughter Chali Kingfisher is a math teacher and a cheer coach at Salina. My son Ty Thompson is a history teacher. He now coaches football and basketball at Vinita High School. I tried to get them to go a different route. I’m not sure why, but at the time I wasn’t making a lot of money and I was a single mother. Despite our struggles, we made it with a lot of answered prayers from God. I think He just provided for us.”

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Mrs. Kingfisher loves teaching just about as much as her mom. “It was like teaching was embedded in us. I love math and I know that I love helping people. That’s why I wanted to come back to where I graduated and help the community. I saw mom’s love for the subject and that made me fall in love with it even more so.”

Cindy Chuculate and her son Ty Thompson following a Vinita High School football game.

Mr. Thompson agreed with his sister about their mom, “I wanted to become a teacher because many of my greatest influences in life were teachers and coaches. My mom was a teacher so I was around other teachers all the time. I saw the impact and difference that she, as well as the others, made on students’ lives and I wanted to have that same impact on young peoples’ lives. Seeing mom’s former students coming up to talk to her, saying how grateful they were to have been taught by her is just awesome to see.”

Inspired to become a teacher by her grandmother, Mrs. Chuculate is pleased to pass the family’s education legacy onto her children. “I know my grandma is happy looking down from heaven seeing her granddaughter and great grandchildren serve as teachers.”

Moore Music Teacher Inspires Students

Elementary music education teacher Zachary Snider begins everyday at Central Elementary School in Moore walking the halls and telling kids to have a great day; almost as if he has a song in his step.

His first class period is reserved for planning so he is fortunate to visit with and welcome students in the morning while planning for future classes. The career music teacher then conducts seven classes daily, helping nearly 450 to 500 students a week on average learn music concepts.

Mr. Snider has always been around music and enjoys sharing his appreciation for music with his students. Growing up with a musical family, his mother played the flute and he dreamed of working in the foreign mission field teaching music to children.

Majoring in instrumental music education, the Edmond North graduate attended the University of Central Oklahoma in his hometown. He began playing clarinet in the fifth grade and later switched to oboe. He went to college where he played oboe and alto saxophone. When he graduated from college, there weren’t many high school band director jobs open. Mr. Snider wanted to teach instrumental music but when a colleague talked to him about elementary education he thought opening up his options to include elementary schools wasn’t a bad idea.

Turns out Mr. Snider’s hunch was right. He had interviews with three elementary schools almost immediately, teaching both singing and band to students. With his certification he was able to open up his job search to include elementary jobs. Nine years later, he still loves every moment of teaching at Central Elementary.

Central Elementary Music Teacher Zachary Snider incorporates games into lessons for students to learn music.

A New Mission Field

His mission field now is to inspire kids to love music, appreciating classics from the 1700’s to current pop songs.

“Knowing that I’m planted in a Title I, low-income school, I have the opportunity to be a positive influence on children where I’m at. I have daily reminders that these kids are looking up to me.

“One student recently lost her dad. She told me her dad loved music, and that I remind her of him with my love for music, and my jokes. I’m glad I can connect with my class,” he said.

Teaching never gets boring for Mr. Snider. Although some days may be overwhelming, he has fun teaching, whether he is making up games to complement music class or teaching students to count different rhythms.

Mr. Snider is always looking to incorporate games into music concepts. For example, if the class sings, “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” the students pass a bean bag around and when the music stops, the student with the bean bag has to pull a Jenga block out of the oversize Jenga tower that stands in the middle of the classroom. When the Jenga tower falls it is like the line in the song – “And the walls came tumbling down.” This exercise is designed to help students learn about syncopated rhythms, the off-beat of music.

Depending on the grade level, students can be overheard singing variations of “Baby Shark” or beating rhythm sticks where the tempo gradually picks up speed and they have to keep up with the beat. Fourth graders may learn to read music on the staff by playing a recorder – a woodwind instrument. Students may also learn to play the tuned percussion tubes Boomwhackers or the xylophone.

“Everyone learns to read music – at least on a basic level,” Mr. Snider said. “The young ones toss a pig at a giant 5’ x 7’ carpet on my floor that displays a music staff. The students have to guess the note where the pig lands on the staff.”

A Love for Music Appreciation

Throughout his classes, Mr. Snider teaches that listening to or playing music is a way to express one’s feelings.

“I teach students to dig deeper to appreciate music. Music helps one understand and communicate their emotions,” Mr. Snider said. “I recently received an email from a former student who is now in high school. He was so thankful to me for teaching him to love music. He said music helped him get through some rough stuff, and probably saved his life. I’m doing something right, if I’m getting through to the students.”

Teaching has become such a rewarding mission field for Mr. Snider. Daily, he gets to inspire our future leaders to do better.

“I teach to see the kids grow,” he said. “I’m really where I’m at because that’s where God put me. The joy I get from teaching is fulfilling. However, when I make it about me, I forget why I teach. I teach to change the lives of the students. What other profession can say that? Other professions don’t have the ability to impact children one-on-one.”

Mr. Snider has certainly impacted his fair share of students throughout the years. Within the Moore Public Schools district, seniors have the opportunity to go back to their elementary school and do a walk through.

“Last year, 10 students came to my door and asked if they could have one last session with Mr. Snider. I used to be taller than them. Now, one student is 6’7”, plays basketball and has a scholarship to play college ball,” he said. “The students came back to reminisce and let me know the positive impact I had on them. It was great to hear them say, ‘We love you Mr. Snider.’”

When Mr. Snider isn’t teaching music, he is umpiring little league games. He also performs with the church orchestra, along with his wife Katie, at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Mr. Snider met his wife Katie in college. She studied music education and child development at UCO. The Sniders have two children, Hannah and Aaron.

Using a Wizard Wall, Mr. Snider helps students understand they are responsible for their grades, success and actions.

Class Supplies Turned Yard Art

Andrea Magness, Tech Ed teacher at Shattuck High School, was inspired during Covid to start a project in her class called Yard Cards to deliver messages to the community. Four senior girls in her yearbook class took on the project and it has been wildly successful. Signs have been requested for team sports, welcome back to school and holidays. “It’s so rewarding to see the students work in class and have fun while working,” she said. Watch more of Mrs. Magness’ story.

From the back of the classroom to the front of the class 

Michael Lewis, Science Teacher, Union Public Schools 

From the student who wanted to blend into the walls to becoming the educator who inspires others, Michael Lewis embarked on a teaching career nearly 20 years ago and has never looked back. 

The Tulsa Union science teacher never thought he would be able to teach or speak in public. As a kid, Lewis was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and stroke, Tourette syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by sudden, repetitive, rapid and unwanted movements or vocal sounds called tics. 

Lewis was perfectly happy blending in with the walls.  

“As long as no one noticed me, no one made fun of me. I never considered teaching for me as a possibility when I was a kid. But that experience helps me,” he said. “When kids see their teacher as an example in front of them saying, ‘I was where you are,’ it is kind of inspiring. We should live our lives to give others a little bit of inspiration.”

Called to teach 

Education is extremely important to Lewis. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.  In 2002 he earned his alternative Teacher certification, and started teaching that fall. 

Lewis teaches because he believes it is a calling. “For me personally, my desire to teach is an opportunity that God put in my heart to help kids,” he said. “I want my classroom to be a place where kids can find hope and safety. If kids feel safe in the classroom, learning is absolutely going to happen.” 

For eight years Lewis has taught middle school Science at Union Public Schools in Tulsa. Prior to that, he taught Business and Computer Technology for 11 years at Skiatook High School. 

Surrounded by educators, teaching is a family affair for Lewis. Lewis’ wife is a teacher at Owasso and recently received her national board certification. Their middle daughter teaches fifth graders in Owasso. And his sister is a special education teacher in Moore. 

“Because education is so important to me, I’ve always told my kids – my three daughters, as well as my students – they must get an education,” Lewis said. “And, there are three ways to get your education:  go to college, go to vo-tech or join the military. There is a fourth way and it is called ‘the school of hard knocks’, but it is extremely difficult, it never ends, and never pays well.”   

A strong work ethic 

Michael gets his work ethic from his parents. 

“My dad was a truck driver. My mom was a stay at home mom and she did alterations for people for extra income. She eventually became a secretary. Both parents graduated high school and were adamant about education. My parents told my sister and I that education was not an option, it was expected. My sister was the first person in my whole family to have a college degree and I was the second.” 

The blessings of teaching 

 “I can never retire because teaching is something I have always enjoyed,” said Lewis, who also enjoys teaching the Bible at church. “As long as I am healthy I will keep teaching. I enjoy the subject matter. I am always very blessed with the students I get to teach every year.” 

Lewis recalls a couple of students who had a great impact on him. 

“I was teaching computer technology to high school students, introducing them to Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. I had a special education student come to my class with his individualized education plan (IEP),” Lewis said. “There was a whole host of issues this student was dealing with. On top of these issues, he was poverty stricken. I was told by the Special Ed Teacher, that if this kid can recognize letters on the alphabet that would be awesome. By the end of the year, he was actually typing and putting together sentences.” 

Another amazing student encounter for Lewis occurred early in his teaching career. 

“I had only been teaching for a few years and I had particular student who was going to drop out and get a GED. He got his GED and went in to the Army,” Lewis said. “His drill sergeant was working on his masters and didn’t know how to make PowerPoint slides. My former student learned how to make PowerPoint slides from my classes and I understand he finished his basic training in an office chair in air conditioning. He was taught valuable skills he used in life.” 

Can’t complain 

Lewis is coming up on 20 years of teaching and his advice for someone wanting to enter the world of teaching is to do so because you want to make a positive difference in other people’s lives. There are so many opportunities to do that very thing. “I tell people I have a pretty good gig, he said. “I can’t complain.” 

When Lewis isn’t teaching, he likes to write. He’s written and had a book published, titled, “Common Sense with a Side of Gravy.” He’s also written a couple of short films, having produced one and hoping to produce another later in the spring. Plus, Lewis is always looking at ways to remodel his home. 

You can read more about Lewis in a feature story on the Tourette Association of America blog.