When asked which he enjoys more, being in the classroom or being on the field, POE Board President Tim Whaley answers with ease, “I love being in the classroom.” Whaley began his teaching career 14 years ago in Texas. He first stepped into the classroom at Bray-Doyle, then Duncan. Whaley now works at Rush Springs where he teaches high school economics and history, middle school history, and is the head coach for track and cross-country.
Whaley says he was meant to teach. In high school Whaley had two teachers who had a major impact on his trajectory. “Those teachers were the sole reason I went to college,” he says. “They were able to identify my strengths. They encouraged me and pushed me to think of my future as more than what I knew. ” As a first-generation college student, those teachers made college seem like a real option for him. Today he is able to pay it back. “My favorite part of teaching is seeing the growth in students.”
As a lifelong learner, Whaley likes studying learning styles. “I enjoy putting organization to learning.” Whaley uses several strategies in his classroom like Cornell Notes and daily ‘I Can’ statements. The ‘I Can’ statement for today’s lesson was: I can list and discuss the 3 dictators in Europe during WWII. “We start the class reading the ‘I Can’ statement, and we will end the class by going around and giving everyone the opportunity to answer it.”
In addition to teaching and coaching, Whaley spends his free time as a high school football referee. During his 21 years wearing the black and white stripes, he has had the opportunity to ref two semi-final games and two state championships. “I view coaching as another vehicle to reach kids and teach them.”
Beyond his teaching and coaching duties, Whaley serves as President of the POE Board of Directors. “I’m a partner with POE. It’s not just an association I’m in.” As a Board Member he appreciates how our employees are working for our members daily. During a convention last summer, Whaley was able to meet leaders from sister organizations across the nation, and learn how those coalitions are working for students and their families. He also sees behind-the-scenes of the POE Government Affairs Team and the continual process of working with the Legislature. “Education is fluid; it’s changing. Policy that is being written now is determining what those changes will look like.”
In June Whaley and his wife Kim will celebrate five years of marriage. “We met when we were 18. College sweethearts.” But the timing wasn’t right. “We remained friends, and I eventually had to make an appointment with her to ask her to take me out of the friend zone.” Now the couple has two beautiful children, Reese age 8 and Noelle age 5, who they adopted after a period of fostering. The family loves to travel and experience life to the fullest.
Whether it’s being a dad, teaching, coaching, being a ref, or serving on Boards, Whaley wants to return the favor and show gratitude for the opportunities shown to him by those teachers who impacted his life.
Mary Jo Robertson has always loved math, but through new professional development opportunities, she has become a self-professed history geek. Thanks to the NASA Oklahoma Space Grant Consortium STELLAR Program, she proudly says, “It took 10 days out of my summer, but what I got in return is so much better.I’m now a NASA nerd.”
In June 2022, Mary Jo Robertson saw a post on a Facebook page about a unique professional development opportunity and she decided to take a chance. “It was the day the application was due,” Robertson recalls. “I submitted my application at 11:30 before it was due at midnight.”
Robertson is in her 25th year of teaching at Fargo-Gage Public Schools in Northwest Oklahoma. While teaching 7th & 8th Grade Math and Social Studies, she is always looking for new ways to engage her students and herself in lifelong learning. So when an out-of-this-world opportunity presented itself, she jumped.
The chance paid off. According to their website, the STELLAR (STEM Teachers Experience Linking Learners to Aerospace Research) program was created “to provide educators of all grades and subject areas with top-notch classroom resources to enhance hands-on STEM in the classroom and equip them with the necessary tools to empower our next generation of STEM thinkers and doers!”
The group of 16 educators meets from July to April. Members include pre-service teachers from various Oklahoma colleges, as well as current classroom teachers. “The grant is set up for teachers in three districts in the Oklahoma City area, but last year they didn’t have anyone apply from those districts so they opened it up statewide,” Robertson said.
STELLAR program participants have monthly challenges they must complete as part of the program curriculum. The challenges take 1-3 hours and vary from listening to a podcast and writing a paper about the topic, to stargazing and journaling about it. In addition to the monthly challenges, participants attend a 10-day hands-on training program and two weekend sessions all on the OSU campus, and help host a recruitment table for future participants. Additionally participants are invited to a VIP trip to the Johnson Space Center at the conclusion of the program. All expenses are covered by the Oklahoma Space Grant Consortium.
One of the highlights of the program for Robertson was helping to fly a plane. “I hate flying, but that was probably one of my favorite things we have done.” She continued, “After I flew, I was standing on the wing waiting to change places with my classmate so they could fly. I asked someone to take my picture. When I look back at that picture, it makes me smile. I didn’t realize the joy I had at that moment.”
Robertson concedes that looking for additional PD is not something that all teachers are interested in, but she hopes others will search out interesting opportunities. “Going into this I knew I would struggle and would be way out of my comfort zone, but that’s what I ask of my students every day. It has been good for me to be in this position, to empathize with my kids more.”
A bear reared up on his hind legs — teeth baring, claws ready — is the first thing that greets you as you enter Noble Middle School. It’s not a statue. It has real fur and actual teeth. It’s a taxidermy mount; and, it’s not alone. Continue past the snarling bear down the hallway and you will eventually reach classroom 105 on the left — a biology lab. Inside this lab, are narrow-eyed foxes, glistening waterfowl and slithering snakes all frozen in time.
Carefully sculpted and molded into realistic snap shots of nature, these taxidermy mounts offer a rare look into wild habitats in a way that textbook photos and nature films cannot. At least, that is the intention behind the mounts according to the creator Hal Clary.
Mr. Clary, a 40-year veteran of Noble Public Schools, is a biology teacher, a basketball coach of 30 years, and — if it’s not already clear — a dang-good taxidermist. As Mr. Clary explains, “Taxidermy and biology are a natural fit. It allows one to capture moments of nature, freeze them in time, and display them in lifelike ways for students to study.”
Of course, not all students like being close to the static snakes that seem to oscillate along staged tree branches or sit next to mounted snapping turtles that look as if they may reanimate at any second. But in addition to some apprehension, these mounts offer students a rare perspective into the life of organisms. They inspire students to imagine organisms living in their natural settings and to engage more deeply with the material.
Yet, ask Mr. Clary about the role of taxidermy in teaching biology and he will quickly tell you it’s simply a tool. Sure, it helps some students engage and can encourage interest, but it’s not the most important thing.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching Math, English, History or Science” Mr. Clary explained. “Teaching is about building relationships with students.”
During Mr. Clary’s long tenure at Noble Public Schools, he has had the opportunity to build lasting relationships with many students. However, a few relationships in particular stick out.
“Do you know where I can get a job?”
A student asked as he tapped Mr. Clary on the shoulder. Mr. Clary, who at the time had been teaching for just a few years, turned to see a 7th grade boy dressed in a dark T-shirt and baggie jeans looking up at him. The 7th grade student, Mark, explained that he and his mom were in trouble and on the verge of being evicted from their home. In a last-ditch effort to help his mom, Mark was doing everything in his power to find a job, including asking his new biology teacher — Mr. Clary — if he knew of any openings.
As it turned out, Mark was already too late. When the school bus dropped him off that afternoon, he found his family’s belonging piled on the front stoop. The door was locked. A single piece of yellow paper was stapled to the door: “EVICTION NOTICE.”
During the next couple of days, Mr. Clary and a few other teachers helped Mark and his mother find a place to live. Once the housing crisis was handled, Mr. Clary set his sights on Mark’s academics. Mr. Clary tutored Mark after school, helped him with homework and talked with him about personal challenges and future plans.
When summer arrived, the tutoring sessions—or at least quasi-tutoring sessions—continued. Mark would arrive at 7:30 most mornings, have breakfast at the Clary’s and then study, work or hang out with Mr. Clary until lunch.
When school started again in the fall, Mark moved onto to the 8th grade, but he didn’t forget about Mr. Clary. He continued to drop by the biology lab or Mr. Clary’s house to work on homework or just hangout.
Today, Mark is in his 40s and is still close with Mr. Clary. They speak on the phone regularly and visit in person occasionally.
“Not all relationships you build with students are like that,” Mr. Clary said. “But then again, some are.”
A number of years later, another student in a difficult situation walked into Mr. Clary’s biology lab. Meghan was a new 7th grader. In the month leading up to the start of school, Meghan’s parents divorced. She now lived with her mother and sister in Noble.
The first semester was a difficult adjustment for Meghan. Her mother worked extended hours, money at home was tight and Meghan was the new kid at school. She was doing her best to survive. Through biology, Mr. Clary was able to connect with Meghan. He taught the course material, but he also connected with Meghan as a person.
“When you teach, you’re teaching more than just a subject,” Mr. Clary said. “You’re teaching life lessons, responsibility, how to handle and overcome adversity; you’re building relationships and helping students succeed both academically and in life.”
At the end of the year, Mr. Clary said goodbye to his students as they prepared to leave for summer break. As is his custom, Mr. Clary told his class that if they ever needed help with anything, “Just call.”
After a few years, Mr. Clary ran into Meghan at a Noble basketball game. Meghan was a sophomore in high school. The two talked for a bit and as always, Mr. Clary reminded her to “just call” if she ever needed help.
That same night, around 10 o’clock, Meghan called the Clary home; her mother was sick and in the hospital. Meghan was alone and didn’t know what to do. Mr. and Mrs. Clary went to Meghan and prepared a place for her to stay that night.
Throughout the next several years, Mr. Clary and Meghan’s family grew close. Mr. Clary helped her apply for college, counseled her through difficult decisions and celebrated her achievements. Meghan began referring to Mr. Clary as her second dad.
It has been many years since 7th grade Meghan walked into Mr. Clary’s biology class, but she no longer considers Mr. Clary just one of her teachers, she considers him family. She often remarks that when the day arrives, it will Mr. Clary who walks her down the aisle to be married.
Mr. Clary loves biology, coaching and taxidermy, but more than all those things, it is clear he loves teaching. He loves building relationships with students, pouring into their lives and helping them accomplish their goals.
“Let’s say, on average,” Mr. Clary started. “130 students per year for 40 years, that’s over 5,000 students and families. If you want to make a positive impact in the lives of others, becoming a public-school teacher seems like a great way to do it.”
* The names of students, particular dates, and specific locations have been altered for the purpose of anonymity.
Sonya Covalt, English Language Arts Teacher at Woodward Middle School
Sonya Covalt is a Texan currently living in Woodward for 23 years. Although her noted publications include church-related materials such as funeral dinner sign-ups, bulletin blurbs, student bios for Senior Sunday, Vacation Bible School and Sunday School materials, she is perhaps best known for her acclaimed and prolific essay comments, spunky emails to administration, witty Facebook posts, and a plethora of IT requests.
A veteran teacher of 27 years, Sonya is passionate about her students and English Language Arts, and is also a champion for public education. She was featured in May 2020 on KFOR’s series, “Is This a Great State or What?!” with journalist Galen Culver.
The feature story was titled, “These OK teachers come up with unique way for keeping students engage at home.” Sonya delivered on a promise to her 8th graders to dress up in crazy costumes after Spring Break, making online instruction an interesting adventure.
Rewards of Being a Teacher “Becoming a teacher was not a decision I made. It was a call I answered. In the classroom, I have the opportunity to be a source of light, a safe haven, an encourager, and an advocate, as well as an educator. Building relationships with young minds and watching them grow both academically and personally is a gift I am blessed to receive,” Sonya said. “It’s my job, but it’s also my passion. I don’t remember making the choice to teach. I remember attempting other career paths and having each of those choices diverted back to education every time. This is where I am supposed to be. My 8th graders bring me joy every single day, which is truly one of the great rewards of teaching.”
Why I love POE “As a member of POE, I feel valued, supported, and heard. No other teacher organization in Oklahoma holds a candle to POE in terms of liability coverage, legal services, cost, and lobbying. My money stays in my state and is only used for matters related to education,” Sonya said. “I am given the opportunity to participate in round table discussions with members of our legislature, as well as the governor. Our government relations team is second to none, where educational matters are concerned. POE helps me be a better teacher because their number one priority is to serve and support their members. Professional Oklahoma Educators is like my personal cheer leading squad, boosting my confidence and cheering me on, so I can give my very best to my precious students.”
Sonya is a lover of people and a life-long fan of English singer, songwriter, musician and composer Paul McCartney. She has an inexplicable obsession with the British drama series Downton Abbey, is an over-the-top celebrator of Halloween, and is completely infatuated with her sons, Campbell and Colby.
Sonya’s absolute greatest joy in life, however, is in serving Jesus Christ.
Stephanie Randolph, 8th Grade History Teacher at Waller Middle School, Enid
When you walk into Stephanie Randolph’s 8th grade history classroom at Waller Middle School in Enid, you can’t help but see the large American flag she proudly displays. It is a cherished gift from a fellow history teacher, who even provided the certificate indicating when the flag flew atop Oklahoma’s state capitol.
Along with the American flag, Stephanie decorates her room with warm colors and positive sayings.
An adjacent wall is full of history posters. Among the posters, Stephanie last year placed the names of her students and she challenged them to think about their place in history. Her theme for the year was, “How will you leave your mark in history?”
She told her students, “’No matter your career choice, you are going to leave your mark in history. Everyone you come in contact with will remember something about you. What impression will you leave on people?’ I wanted them see their value. I wanted them to see their worth and what they have to bring to the world. What stood out the most to me was that my students have big goals and big dreams.”
History has always been an appealing subject to Stephanie. She finds studying different cultures fascinating.
“History really seems to fit well with my personality,” Stephanie said. “My aunt was a history teacher and I grew up with good history teachers who made it interesting. I really loved Oklahoma history and that was my favorite class I took as a student. Once I started college, I knew I wanted to be a teacher and focused more on history.”
Stephanie ties real world experience into her history lessons, and helps students focus on getting ready for high school and life after school. “I try to tie in what happened hundreds of years ago into what is happening today in their lives. I feel relating history to their own life and experiences helps the students enjoy it more. My goal is for students to be excited about coming to history class,” she said.
The most rewarding aspect of teaching for Stephanie is that she is able to build connections and relationships with students.
“I’m fortunate to have my students all year long so I get to know them better. I enjoy being able to celebrate all their victories with them,” Stephanie said. “And I get to see how much they grow from the beginning of 8th grade and to when they are ready to start high school.”
Another rewarding aspect of teaching for Stephanie is that she works to be the best positive influence.
“In middle school, students experience a lot changes and I try to be the best positive influence I can. I try to be that positive influence for every class, for every student,” she said. “I want my students to see the importance of staying positive and having a good outlook. I love for students to be hopeful and understand what hope means. And when the students have that ‘aha moment,’ you know they’ve got it and can keep moving forward. I love the seeing the ‘aha moment’ flip switch in their eyes and watching their confidence build.”
Prior to being an educator, Stephanie had a couple of different career avenues. She was a manager at a clothing store and a manager at a frozen yogurt shop. She also served as a substitute teacher. “I have always loved teaching and coaching,” said Stephanie, who will be entering her third year at Waller, and also coached and taught geography one year at Chisholm Middle School.
Every day as an educator is different for Stephanie and she is grateful to work alongside amazing individuals. She considers her colleagues and co-workers super intelligent and creative, and has developed lifelong friendships. Stephanie also enjoys her time as Student Council Representative.
“Teaching is definitely a profession I can do for awhile,” she said. “As a teacher you are always learning and looking for new things in professional development, whether it is technology or classroom management. You are going to be a lifelong learner and a teaching career is not stagnant. I have been teaching for four years and I can see myself teaching for years to come.”
Stephanie is married and has two children. She loves spending time with her family and enjoys being outdoors, whether that is walking, fishing or playing sports. She also coaches her children’s basketball and softball teams.