Last year, Randi House, a Kindergarten teacher from Theodore Jones Elementary School, was chosen as Conway Public Schools’ District Teacher of the Year, then went on to become the Arkansas State Teacher of the Year. Although I have known Randi long before this past year, it has been a joy to see folks from all over the state come to know her heart for students, her passion for teaching, her creativity, and her fearless spirit that is such an inspiration to all of us.

Randi’s Teacher of the Year journey has afforded her so many amazing opportunities that I wanted to be able to share with our community. So I asked her to write for my column this week.

I know you’ll be blessed by her story and like me, so thankful that she is a part of our Conway Schools’ family.

“When you become a teacher, you imagine that moment when you see one of your former students walking across the stage at graduation. You take pride in that moment, knowing you had a part in getting that young person there. You are a part of their story; and they, a part of yours. For some of us, especially those that teach younger elementary children, that moment can take a while to come. For me…it took 15 years to be exact.

My first teaching job was as a pre-kindergarten teacher in the tiny town of Tyronza. I opened the town’s first public preschool. It was housed within the elementary school and I can still remember feeling a hope and excitement as my first group of students entered that empty, outdated classroom. My whole world revolved around those kids in that classroom for the next two years. I loved those kids. I loved their families. I knew them, and they knew me. For the most part, I had the same students in my second year. When you spend two years with the same group of students, it’s a unique bond and sense of family. When that group moved up to kindergarten, I was offered a job in another district back home. Leaving them was a gut-wrenching decision. I left knowing that I wouldn’t get to see them grow up and I didn’t realize how much that hurt until years later.

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to come back to visit that elementary school and see my first classroom again. Stepping into that classroom after all these years took me straight back to those moments as a first-year teacher. The tables and tiny chairs and shelves were all still there; the ones I had hand-selected from a catalog and waited for months to arrive. The curtains I had hand-sewn had just been taken down a few weeks earlier. The tricycle track that I had worked so hard to get put in was there and apparently well-loved. It had been finished right before I left that school and I never even got to see kiddos ride on it. I was surprisingly overwhelmed with emotions as I stood in that classroom. I was proud and heartbroken at the same time. The memories of those students were everywhere in that room and I mentioned to the principal that “my kids” would be seniors this year. I told her how much I missed getting to see them grow up. She offered to drive me over to the high school to see if we could track them down and I eagerly accepted. She knew their names and on the ride over we chatted about them: who had moved and who had stayed, who were the cheerleaders and football players, who were band members, and who was already working. A strange mix of excitement and worry filled me as we approached the school. Would they even remember who I was? I tried to prepare myself for the reality that they might not. Although they were such a huge part of my life…I was only a small part in theirs.

We walked into the high school office and explained who I was and what we were doing. They gave me a list of students to look at and they began to call them into the office. One by one, they walked in. I recognized their faces immediately…and for the most part, they knew mine. We hugged, and they reminisced for a bit and shared their plans for after graduation. I stood there in front of them unable to stop the tears from flowing. All these years I had dreamed of seeing these kiddos grow up and here they were standing in front of me…all grown up.

They were amazing. All of them. They are going to college, to cosmetology school, to the military, to welding school, and even to medical school. In a few months I will sit in the audience as they walk across the stage and graduate. I will feel such pride and honor knowing my work, my love, my investment in these kiddos helped them to get there. And at that moment, my teacher heart will be fulfilled.”