Ask Kelly Leiter why she teaches and she’ll say she was born for teaching.
In her first job interview, Mrs. Leiter recalls the principal showing her a large stack of applications. The principal asked, “Why should I hire you instead of these other candidates?”
“They want a job,” Mrs. Leiter said. “I was born to teach.”
Needless to say, she got the job and has been teaching for 38 years. The upcoming school year would be her 40th year in the classroom; however, she took off a year to be with her dad and a year for personal leave.
The Moore High School Reading teacher remembers going to school as a young girl, believing she was the teacher. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t help teach. I would follow my teacher around and pick up the books. The teacher would get a reading group together, and I would get three or four students together. My teacher told my mom, ‘Please tell Kelly that I am the teacher.’ Later, in fifth grade I remember telling my teacher how to help students who had difficulty learning.
“My earliest memory of reading and helping kids who have some sort of difficulties was at a young, young age. I was five years old and there was a little boy at our church who was non-verbal and I wanted to help him. I drew pictures of a cup and a plate, for instance, and gave them to him to put on a string and he began to communicate with his parents.”
The Love of Reading
The first part of each semester with Mrs. Leiter is devoted to enhancing the students’ reading skills. Students have to write a word, know the definition and use it in a sentence. “We hit the reading skills pretty hard and then we dive into a novel, reading about 50-70 pages a week. In class, we talk about the assigned reading and do research (on history referenced in the book’s time period) so the students are fully invested in the characters.”
Over a two-year period, her high school students read “Salt to the Sea” and “Between Shades of Gray” by award-winning American novelist Ruta Sepetys. These beautiful works of historical fiction take place during and at the end of WWII. In one novel, a young Lithuanian girl and her family endure the harsh reality of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union regime. In the other novel, her cousin and three others are drawn together by fate and the indelible desire for love and freedom. To escape Germany they find refuge on a ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff. History comes to life on these pages and for the first time, many of her students experience the love of reading.
“I create an entire experience for the students, complete with a map and research opportunities so they can gather facts. With the added information, the book now holds meaning for them,” Mrs. Leiter said. “In class, I set the stage with music while we read. Then students write from their hearts about the story.”
While exploring the novel, her students also learn something about themselves. At the end of the year, each student does some self-reflection and writes about how they see themselves by answering the question, “What is the truth about your life?”
“I am a powerful and loved young woman,” writes one student.
Another adds, “I am a trustworthy young man.”
“It’s the moments when you see the light come on,” said Mrs. Leiter, almost teary-eyed as she reaches for a tissue. “The moments you know when there has been a connection. It is an amazing feeling. That’s what you live for in the classroom.
“I could have retired in 2013,” said Mrs. Leiter, who has taught kids and grandkids or former students. “I love school so much that I went back to school so that I could forever be at school. I’m not through. I’m not finished. I’m not done. I have asked myself what life would be like if I didn’t come to school. There is not a world where school isn’t a part of it.”
Her classroom is decorated with reminders of what makes a good teacher. One particular sign that hangs in front of her classroom describes Mrs. Leiter perfectly: “A teacher is a special friend whose love and kindness never end.”
That love and kindness has trickled over into helping children understand how one internalizes the words people speak about us.
“I see the effects of low self esteem in class,” Mrs. Leiter said. “They experience negative self-talk, such as ‘Everyone else is reading and I can’t.’ There is so much negative self talk, and the students internalize it. We need to give kids back the power and not allow what others say about them to have the power.
“My son, Jonathan, had been dealing with bullying when he was six. He would come into my classroom and cry about being bullied,” she said. “I gave him some unconventional wisdom and told him, ‘You are just a tree.’ That night when I tucked him in bed, he asked why I called him a tree. I knew he needed to take his own power back. He turned around and said, “I am not a tree.”
Discovering who you are sometimes comes from who you are not, and that was the impetus for her book, “I Am Not A Tree.” She based the story on the real-life experiences with her son and has shared it in many classrooms, workshops and seminars throughout North America to help others overcome bullying. In 2000 Jonathan was killed in a car accident, and the book was published in his memory in December 2021.
Her story and how she helped bullied kids through her experience with her son was featured earlier this year on News9. For more information about “I Am Not A Tree,” you can email Mrs. Leiter at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to purchase “I Am Not A Tree,” please scan the following QR code. A study guide and student engagement addition are free with the purchase of the book and an email request to Mrs. Leiter.