Lori Thomas had a surprise for her kindergarten class this spring. She was going to be absent from her Berney Elementary classroom, but a special "guest teacher" (the polite term Mrs. Thomas uses for "substitute") would be taking her place. It was someone who'd visited their classroom before. Someone who Mrs. Thomas knows very well. Someone who even looks and talks a little like Mrs. Thomas. Could they guess who?
To their delight, it was Mikayla Cummings, a master's in education student at Walla Walla University, who is better known to these youngsters as Lori Thomas' oldest daughter.
When Mikayla took the helm in her mother's classroom, Lori said, with a measure of pride, that it felt as though her life had come full circle.
"It was amazing, watching her and having all the confidence in the world in her," said Lori, who was doing student testing nearby. "Seeing how she dealt with situations and thinking, 'That's how I would have handled it.' I'm not even sure she needed the notes I left for her. She just knew what to do."
Her daughter's intuition for teaching was a delight to witness but certainly no surprise to Lori. Mikayla, and her sisters Taryn and Tianna Cummings, literally grew up in Lori's classroom. They would hang out with their mom before and after school during their elementary years at Berney. As they got older, they'd help her prepare class projects, lead story time or just drop by to say hi. And now, at 22, Mikayla is a certified teacher and Taryn, 20, is pursuing a teaching degree at the University of Idaho. Tianna, a sophomore at Wa-Hi, has expressed interest in working with children with special needs.
Lori says that it has always been her nature to share what's gone on each day at school with her daughters. Whether she's retelling a "funny kid story" or relating instances of poverty that some of her students know firsthand, she says including her daughters in her teaching world has fostered a love of children and a compassion for those kids who don't have a bed to sleep in or a winter coat to wear.
"You don't teach here and mother there," she says. "It all really dovetails. Being a mom has made me a better teacher and being a kindergarten teacher has made me a better mom. You have more patience, more understanding, more tolerance. You learn how to reflect on your day and think about what you could have done differently."
In many ways, Lori sees her students as an extension of her own family. When children walk through the door, she promises to treat them as if they were her own.
"Kids respond better to teachers who really care," says Lori. "In fact, we all perform better when we are cared for and appreciated." Berney Principal Donna Painter says Lori takes a comprehensive approach to teaching, often working extensively with parents and others in the community to make sure students have the resources they need to learn. One of her students wore glasses, but they were often getting lost, forgotten or broken. Lori worked with the parent to make sure an extra pair of glasses stayed at school, said Donna. "She'd even run down to the eye center to get them repaired. She wanted to make sure the child always had that necessary piece so they could learn."
Lori says she tries to create an "extended-family feeling" for her classroom parents as well. For many, it is their first experience as a parent in the public school system and she says she wants them to feel always welcome and at home in the classroom.
"Kindergarten is really about the family," agrees Marcella Rietz, a former parent volunteer in Lori's classroom. "It's the first time you entrust your child to somebody else. Lori does a really good job bringing the whole family into the kindergarten experience. She welcomes parents to not only be visitors but active participants in the classroom. You have to work together for the betterment of the child."
"Lori is such a dynamic person," adds Marcella. "She has such a big heart. The kids just swarm to her." A swarm of bees is exactly what her class looked like as they gathered around Mrs. Thomas for circle time during one of the last classes of the school year. She explained that on the last day of school every child would receive an envelope with her address on it. And in that envelope would be a blank piece of paper.
"What could you do with that," she asked her class. "Write you a letter," several answered in unison. Lori said she couldn't wait to hear about all the fun things her students would be doing over the summer. And she made a promise, should she find a letter in her mailbox. "I will run up my driveway and grab a piece of paper and I will write you one back! That way I get to keep in touch with you."
While she hopes her students finished the year knowing how to read a calendar, sound out words and follow directions, she wants them to always remember feeling loved, encouraged and supported. In 25 years of teaching, 17 of them in kindergarten at Berney, Lori says she has learned that "you won't always remember what somebody taught you. But you will remember how somebody treats you." It is this lesson, as a teacher and mother, that she is passing on to her daughters as well. "What you put into them helps to develop who they are ... the time, love and energy. It keeps them connected to me. I can't imagine not having a relationship with them."
To nominate a mom who makes a difference, contact Beth Swanson at email@example.com.