A Lifelong Learner Finds Her Calling in Teaching

Alyson Slack, Parkview Elementary in Midwest City

An avid reader, performer and daughter of an educator, Alyson Slack knew at an early age she wanted to be a teacher. She taught pre-school, helped her mom with lessons and earned a double major from Oklahoma Christian University in early childhood and elementary education.

“While I was growing up, I would help my mom with her lessons. I really enjoyed helping mom,” Slack said. “I felt like I had a good rapport with children and at my church, I would teach preschool. I enjoyed working with the kids, seeing them smile and helping them learn. I realized I could have a positive effect on the lives of children. I felt like it was one of my gifts to help kids enjoy learning.”

At an early age, Slack won an award for storytelling. It was at that time she found out she enjoyed performing. And if you spend any time around her, you know she loves to sing.

“Children learn through music and movement, and there are different ways I can introduce those into the curriculum,” said Slack, who can always be heard singing in the classroom. “I enjoy that I can teach all of the subjects and integrate them all together.”

Last May, she bought a ukulele and is learning how to play. She hopes it will go along well with her singing and she hopes to provide background music in her classroom.

Slack currently teaches first grade and virtual school at Parkview Elementary in Midwest City. She teaches first graders from several different schools in the district through the learning platform, Canvas. She previously served as a kindergarten teacher for 12 years.

An Opportunity to Learn New Things

“It has been interesting to learn the standards for first graders and for virtual learning at the same time,” Slack said. “I was excited to expand my learning and use new technology. I enjoyed learning about Canvas, editing videos and putting things together in Google Slides. Our school put some curriculum together for teachers. Luckily, I have eight people on my team I can bounce ideas off. It’s been so interesting to meet new people with new ideas on teaching and feed off of their energy.

“We are adapting so well. I am very fortunate to work with the teachers I do. We had to adapt and there were frustrating moments but it helped us to bond quickly and our team had similar philosophies about teaching. We were going to help each other.”

When asked about how her class is doing during the pandemic, Slack mentioned that virtual learning and first graders make for a very interesting combination.

“At the end of last year, we went virtual and that time helped us set up how things would work. A lot of kids had not worked with Canvas. We had to coach the parents on how to be coaches for their children and how to navigate the software. The parents would videotape their children reading a book or doing math problems. Once we were able to coach the parents, we got to see the kids every week through the videos.”

Using Google Meet, her class meets weekly so they can interact, and have social and emotional learning that is so critical for students. Slack said some students have thrived from the start of virtual learning and believes that she will someday have some YouTube stars since they are used to seeing themselves on video.

Why Teaching?

For Slack, no two days are the same and none are boring. She says every day is new and has interesting things in store for her.

“I really have found that I love teaching because I personally love having an impact on those kids and I love being a support for the families,” Slack said. “Being able to offer a safe place for the kids so they can enjoy learning is so important to me. Besides, I really enjoy learning. Year before last, I attended trauma informed learning. I learned how to provide support for my students, and help them learn and deal with their emotions so they can become confident learners.”

Why Should Someone Consider Teaching as a Career?

“I would say anybody who has a heart for working with children and enjoys building relationships with kids should consider a career in education. We need teachers who put kids first. There is so much that goes into teaching that you can build so many skill sets. You teach resiliency and how to deal with emotions. Anybody who wants to make an impact will find teaching a very interesting job. Every day is different and you are constantly learning and growing. Learning doesn’t end and you can be a lifelong learner. I’m still learning every day.”

A Lasting Impact

Of all the benefits of teaching, Slack said students who make an impact on her provide the greatest benefit. “Sometimes I have kids who come to kindergarten or first grade and they are angry, not very social. They are not open to wanting to play with friends or making friends. I have been able to put my trauma informed training to good use. I saw how some of the techniques such as calm down corner, yoga or breathing techniques can help. These techniques can help students have more positive feelings. I got to see those skills come into practice when I observed a young student come out of their shell. It was so rewarding to see this child feel more confident and know that they belonged in school. That was really rewarding and made teaching worth it. I can give students tools, not to only use in kindergarten and first grade, but in other grades, to help them independently help themselves.”

Called to Teach and Serve

By Leif Francel, 7th-8th Grade Religion Teacher and 5th-8th Grade Science Teacher at Holy Trinity Catholic School in Okarche

Leif Francel

I absolutely love teaching. It is a beautiful experience that enables you to serve all kinds of people. You care for children that are poor and rich, black and white, academically gifted and academically challenged. You get a chance to meet their families and their siblings.

It is so rewarding!

I was called to teaching with a desire to serve. I now teach at Holy Trinity Catholic School and get to share my knowledge and my faith with my students. What a wonderful calling! I think someone should go into teaching if they want to make a difference. But they should also understand the full picture. There will be difficult days where you may feel disrespected or that you are not supported. 

Yet, the silver lining is that you have a huge impact on the world and on every life you meet. The children will remember you and just the fact that you cared. They will remember it forever!

I plan, God willing, to stay in education and in the classroom for the remainder of my working life. It is a most fulfilling profession, and I cannot imagine being anywhere else.

Caring Educator, Coach, Cancer Survivor

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, POE would like to highlight one of our employees who is a breast cancer survivor, a long-term educator and a valued member of our REP team.

Carol Mattoon began her education career in Frederick, Oklahoma by teaching 4th graders and physical education. She then went to a K-8 school teaching all subjects except math. She even coached a boys’ basketball team for seven years, with two of those years achieving an undefeated record. She finished up her last 15 years by teaching 8th grade English.

“I had always planned on being a teacher,” said Carol, who graduated from Cameron University with a double major in elementary education and physical education. “I had aunts and uncles who were teachers and by being around family members who taught, I knew teaching would be a great opportunity. As a teacher, you are a mom, a nurse, a confidant. You have the lives of young people in your hands.”

Carol is a REP for POE’s Region 3 which includes Creek, Grant, Kay, Kingfisher, Logan, Noble, Pawnee, Payne and Osage counties. She also works with our student chapters, “When I go out to the colleges to speak, I always tell them, ‘You are going to have really good days and you are going to have really bad days. However, you are going to make a difference in a person’s life. You need to care for each student as a person because you may be the only person who cares.’

“I remember looking out the window one day while I was teaching, thinking, ‘Can I come back to school tomorrow?’ Then I turned around and saw one of my young students leaving a note on my desk. She brought me a stuffed animal and left it along with the note. Then I thought, ‘Yes, I can come back.’”

Carol kept teaching for 30 years. She has former students who might be in their 50s today come up and say, “Ms. Mattoon, you were my favorite teacher.” These moments mean the world to Carol. From the “I love yous” to thank you notes to flowers, Carol still cherishes these sweet moments that make teaching worthwhile.

After retiring from teaching in 2002, Carol went to work for child welfare part-time before joining POE. She has been at POE now for seven years. She enjoys being a REP because she can still be with educators, visiting with them and helping them, whether personally or by referring them to POE’s legal department. The care she had for her students is the same care she provides POE members.

Two years after retiring from education, Carol was diagnosed with breast cancer.

As with teaching, Carol’s attitude was critical. “When you find out you have cancer, attitude is everything. Cancer was a setback in my life and it was not going to stop me. It was not going to get me down. It was not going to change my life.”

Carol knew she was going to lose her hair so she bought a couple of wigs. She was determined that chemo treatments were not going to make her sick and they didn’t. Carol was winning her battle with breast cancer. However, two years later the cancer came back. Again, she was determined not to get sick, despite going through radiation the second time.

As a two-time breast cancer survivor of 16 years, Carol’s advice to others is that you if you think something is wrong check it out. “My mammogram never showed a thing; however, I could feel a lump. I had an ultrasound and it didn’t show anything. Finally, a biopsy showed that I had cancer.”

Following her diagnosis, Carol kept going like she always has.

“I want to do anything,” Carol said. “I want to experience everything.”

In honor of Carol Mattoon (top, center) and other breast cancer survivors, POE employees participated in a Pink Out photo shoot for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Teaching: Something Much Bigger than Yourself

Teaching wasn’t Sarah Hicks first career choice, but it has become her calling. And to this day, she still wonders how she got so lucky to be a teacher. “When you are a teacher you are part of something much bigger than yourself,” Sarah said.

Watch this video of Sarah Hicks to see how a second grade teacher made her feel valued and loved, and how she aspires to make her preschoolers feel loved and valued. Sarah is a Pre K teacher in Edmond and serves as the POE State President. Sarah was studying home economics and wanted to be a professional tailor, but has been a teacher since 1982. She has bachelor’s degree is in home economics with family relations and a master’s degree in elementary education. She was National Board Certified in Early Childhood in 2006.

Biologist, Coach and Taxidermist: The Story of a Noble Bear

Noble Middle School, Home of the Noble Bears

Hal Clary, Biology Teacher, Noble Middle School

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.

Mr. Clary uses taxidermy as a tool in teaching biology.

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.

Mr. Clary’s classroom at Noble Middle School.

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.