Moore High School Educator Born to Teach

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.

Helping Others

“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 hugsnbeans21@gmail.com. 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.

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.”

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.

A Day in the Life of a Teacher

On Tuesday, Sept. 15, POE takes a behind the curtain view of what education looks like in 2020

Depending on where you live in Oklahoma, school has been in session anywhere from a week to a month. And on Tuesday, Sept. 15, POE is hosting “A Day in The Life of a Teacher” in which five teachers will help transport you, virtually, to their classrooms. Educators participating in “A Day in The Life of a Teacher” will share various aspects of their day from classroom layout to lunchtime to lesson planning, as well as anything else interesting they might experience.

These five teachers are members of Professional Oklahoma Educators and will share what their day looks like at school:

Jessica Dickinson – Capitol Hill High School; Virtual
Jessica is a sophomore English teacher from Capitol Hill High School with Oklahoma City Public Schools. This is Jessica’s fifth year of teaching, all at Capitol Hill. Jessica is currently pursuing her Master’s in Learning Sciences degree from the University of Oklahoma.

Tonya Daniel – Bennington Public Schools; In Person
Tonya is a special education teacher for grades 7-12 with Bennington Public Schools. She has taught English for 18 years. This is her third year in Special Education for a total of 21 years in the classroom. Tonya is teaching in person. She has been married to her husband David for seven years. They have a son, Phillip, and daughter-in-law, Ashley, along with two paw babies named Ariel and Shortcake.

Anthony Hutchinson – Chouteau-Mazie Public Schools; In Person
Anthony teaches instrumental music (band) for students in grades 6-12. He also teaches K5 music. Mr. Hutchinson has taught in both private and public schools since receiving his Music Education degree from Evangel University, Springfield, Missouri in 1979. He has been in the Chouteau-Mazie School District the past 15 years and thoroughly enjoys working with administration, teachers, students and the community.

Anne Graham – Burlington Elementary School; In Person and Distance Learning Packets
Anne is a 1st grade teacher at Burlington Elementary School, a very small, rural school with approximately 130 students in the entire district. She has nine students doing in-class/traditional learning and one student who participates in distance learning. This is Anne’s 12th year of teaching. 

Tana Sylvester – Cyril Public Schools; In Person and Virtual
Tana is a veteran teacher of 33 years, having taught kindergarten through sixth grade in her career. She taught at Sterling Public Schools for 26 years and has been at Cyril Public Schools for seven years, where she currently teaches Pre-K. She has a daughter and son, and four grandchildren.

“With the start of school changing weekly – whether in-person, virtual or hybrid – teachers participating in a focus group with Professional Oklahoma Educators wanted to show teachers as flexible, resilient individuals who love what they do,” said Ginger Tinney, executive director of Professional Oklahoma Educators. “The idea for chronicling educators throughout the day is a result of the teacher focus group wanting to show positive stories from the classroom.”

The teachers’ experiences will be posted throughout the day on ILoveTeaching.blog.