Gubser Elementary School kindergarten teacher Michele Nowlin (pictured) was honored by her colleagues with a Crystal Apple award last month. (Keizertimes/ERIC A. HOWALD)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

As a student teacher, recent Crystal Apple Award winner Michele Nowlin followed one of her young charges out of the classroom to recess one day.

He was the last one out of the classroom and bundled up for cold weather. As he hit the top of the stairs leading down to the playground, he threw up his arms and shouted, “I’m fwee, fwee as a bird.”

“That joy is what a kindergartner is.,” said Nowlin, a kindergarten teacher at Gubser Elementary School. “There is an awe in a five-year-old who is in school for the first time. They still enjoy being here, it’s all fun and new to them.”

Her approach to the job earned her the admiration of her colleagues with the presentation of a Salem-Keizer Education Foundation Crystal Apple, the award recognizes local educators who provide students with educational options, go beyond their regular job duties to benefit students, and demonstrate best practices. Nominations come from community members, students and parents. Nowlin was nominated for the award, in part, by her classroom assistant Becky Peloquin, who was nominated for a Crystal Apple last year. Nowlin has taught at Gubser for 11 years.

However, kindergarten wasn’t her first choice when she began her career. When she went to a school in Independence as a college student looking for a class to complete her practicum in, she told the principal that she wanted fifth grade.

“I wanted kids who already knew the deal,” Nowlin said. “He assigned me to kindergarten, and I remember telling my roommate that I couldn’t believe I was going to have to spend my day with ‘snotty-nosed little kids.’”

She spent three years in that classroom and the only time she’s taught other grades was when it was required as part of her studies.

The innocence that pervades a kindergarten classroom is what keeps her going now.

“I like being goofy. You can’t be serious all the time, they’re 5-year-olds,” Nowlin said.

One of her favorite lessons is teaching her students about blended sounds, particularly dancing around the room as she tells the tale of how Mr. T and Ms. H locked eyes across a room and shared a graceful dance that created a new sound.

All the fun does come with its share of challenges. Meshing the demands of a bureaucracy with the reality on the ground is one, she said.

“ We know what we have in here and how much effort it’s going to take to get them where they need to be,” she said.

Students are also arriving in her class with less and less preparation for the expectations they’ll be asked to meet.

“Some students come in not being able to hold a pencil, not being able to cut,” Nowlin said. “And now fewer people can afford preschool, so they’re not getting that prep.”

Nowlin was overwhelmed by the nomination alone.

“The last few years, I’ve struggled with the perception that kindergarten is its own world and no one recognizing what it is we deal with and what we have to do to get students ready,” she said.

Receiving the actual award was simply icing on the cake.

“Kindergarten is a really big piece of every child’s life. It was recognizing kindergarten rather than just what I do in the classroom,” Nowlin said.

Nowlin lives in Keizer with her husband and children, A.J., 14, MacKenzie, 9, Rianna, 6, and Macie, 4.