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First-year teachers at home in classroom

January 11, 2013 12:10 am


Childhood friends Nikki Martin (left) and Jessica Evans are first-year teachers in Spotsylvania County schools. They reunited at UMW's graduate teacher licensure program, which operates at the campus in Stafford County. lo011113Maher1.jpg

Barbara Maher, a former Marine officer, now teaches math at Gayle Middle after earning her master's at UMW. lo011113Maher2.jpg

Barbara Maher works with a student in her accelerated seventh-grade math class at Gayle Middle School in Stafford. She uses real-life examples to make math relevant.


Barbara Maher was in physics class at the U.S. Naval Academy three decades ago when the professor planted a seed for a second career.

"His goal was to help us understand why physics is really important," said Maher, who now lives in Stafford County. "I thought, I want to be like that guy some day."

Exactly 30 years after she became one of the earliest women to graduate from the academy, that seed bore fruit.

Maher, 53, is in her first year of teaching math at Stafford's Gayle Middle School after earning a master's degree at the University of Mary Washington.

Making math relevant to her students is Maher's strength, said Jane Huffman, associate professor in UMW's College of Education.

Maher, who spent five years in the Marines, began pursuing her long-dormant goal when her youngest child was in high school. She chose UMW's master's in education for initial teacher licensure program, joining others who are changing fields.

While the program was initially dominated by people already in the workforce, an increasing number of students are now enrolling right after college, Huffman said.

"I can't pinpoint the exact reason--maybe the difficulty in finding jobs and people say, 'I need to continue in school and broaden my options,'" Huffman said.

Regardless of background, their goal is the same.

"The majority of our students who come in every night are people who are passionate about children and about teaching," she said.


Stephanie Kinard and Nikki Denue met in high school when they worked at a pizza parlor in Spotsylvania County. After heading off to different colleges, they lost touch until about two years ago when they ran into each other at UMW's Stafford campus.

Kinard, who is now Stephanie Burchett, attended VCU after graduating from Spotsylvania High School in 2003. She earned a master's degree in criminology and was involved in special education law before deciding she'd rather be "on the other side" as a teacher.

Denue, who in October became Nikki Martin, studied political science at Virginia Tech after graduating from Courtland High in 2005. She spent a year interning with a government contractor before deciding she, too, was better suited for teaching.

Martin looked around one day at UMW and saw Jessica Cornwell Evans, her sister's best friend.

Evans graduated from Courtland High School two years after Martin. She attended James Madison University expecting to become a school psychologist but an internship changed her plans.

"I wanted to work with children of special needs. I just didn't know which form," she said. "I decided working with them daily is a better fit."

After their reunion, Martin, Evans and Burchett became the three musketeers of sorts.


Burchett and Martin wound up student teaching at the same school--Burns Elementary in Stafford.

They commuted from Spotsylvania together and shared ideas and struggles.

They and Evans then went through last spring's Fredericksburg Regional Teacher Job Fair together and found it an advantage.

"It's nice to have some teammates, some support," Evans said. "It builds your confidence to talk to principals and school representatives."

Martin also had Burchett take her through mock interviews.

Spotsylvania hired all three women, which was their first choice. They went through orientation together and helped one another prepare for the start of this school year.

"I wouldn't want to work anywhere else," said Evans, who splits her time as a special education teacher between Berkeley Elementary and Spotsylvania Middle.

She said fellow teachers have welcomed her ideas, despite her youth.

"I'm actually working with a lot of teachers that taught me at Spotsylvania Middle School," she said.

Burchett and Martin both wound up teaching third grade, Burchett at Harrison Road Elementary and Martin at Courthouse Road.

Teaching the same grade has enabled them to continue helping each other.

Martin said the staff at Courthouse Road Elementary has been very supportive, but as the only first-year teacher there, she's glad she can call Burchett and Evans to compare stories.

"I would be lost without them," she said.


With about four months of experience behind them, the new teachers said UMW prepared them well, but nothing compares to the challenge of leading that first class.

"Time management is key. There is so much you must do, so much that goes into it," Martin said.

Maher said lesson planning is one of the biggest hurdles the first year.

"Developing a system is something you have to go through. You have to develop your own," she said.

She's enjoying the 64 seventh-graders in her three math classes. She's inspired by the ones who have a passion to learn, but she's especially invested in those she suspects get their only words of encouragement at school.

That extra level of concern is what she saw modeled by UMW professors.

"By getting to know our students, we can help them in the long run."

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972

The University of Mary Washington's teacher licensure program has developed a pipeline into the local school districts with Spotsylvania and Stafford counties hiring the largest number of graduates.

Prince William County and Fredericksburg hire the second-largest number of newly trained teachers, said Jane Huffman, associate professor in UMW's College of Education.

The master's in education classes meet at UMW's graduate school campus off U.S. 17 in Stafford. Most classes are held evenings, Mondays through Thursdays, and the majority of students complete the program in two years, including one semester student teaching.

Students spend that semester in schools throughout the Fredericksburg region, providing local administrators a chance to see prospective employees at work.

UMW administrators meet regularly with local school superintendents on various topics. It provides a forum to discuss the effectiveness of teachers and job prospects.

Communication with local school districts should get even better now that UMW has hired a full-time director to oversee student teaching placements, Huffman said.

--Pamela Gould

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.