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Teachers feel new emphasis on mental health is long overdue as the buzz of a new school year brings excitement to Woodburn School District

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Some 17 years ago Dalia Lopez entered an Nellie Muir Elemetary School classroom as a first-grade student. This year she enters one as a first-grade teacher.If you could pick one word as a theme for Woodburn School District teachers going into the new school year, it would be "exciting."

That word resonates throughout the district as teachers prepare their lessons, their classrooms and get ready to guide a new set of youth as the students negotiate their way into the next step of their education, be it Kindergarten or their senior years.

Conversations with a sampling of district teachers reveal dedicated educators who are proud of their respective schools and the district they serve. There is a sense of duty and helping students, any which way at their disposal, and it extends beyond individual students to the working with whole families.

Whether its seasoned veterans with decades of experience or relative newcomers to the profession, a fervor for the first day of school is palpable — as it has likely been going into every previous school year.

What seems to be new this year is greater emphasis on mental health. Social and emotional needs have woven into the education fabric, and the teachers feel that's a change for the good.

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Washington Elementary School 5th-grade teacher Christy Bright keeps a lot of positive, mentally healthy messages posted around her classroom.

Christy Bright

Seasoned Washington Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Christy Bright, had her mom, Sherry, and son, Carson, at school on the Thursday before Labor Day weekend, helping her prepare the classroom for the coming school year.

Bright has been teaching for 23 years and worked special education before that. This is her 22nd year at Washington, where she has worn a few different hats, teaching first grade for nine years, then third grade, and a fourth-grade stint in there somewhere.PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Washington Elementary School 5th-grade teacher Christy Bright keeps a lot of positive, mentally healthy messages posted around her classroom.

"It has changed over the years. Every year brings in a new set of kids with a different set of needs," Bright said.

"Our focus has changed as well; we are now serving the needs of the whole child and not just teaching the lessons."

Her classroom reflects that, as she's furnished it with a "calming corner," and there are a handful of instructive posters with messages directed toward positive mental health. There is a mood meter posted, and messages such as "retrain your brain" and "think before you speak," urging students toward empathy and understanding of how their actions affect the feelings of their peers.

The George Fox-educated teacher is also a yoga instructor, which weaves well with this new emphasis.

"There was a big push that started over the last year or so in that we are paying attention to the social and emotional health of the child as well," Bright said, noting that the traditional heavy-handed discipline approach was not cutting it.

As for the nervousness students may feel about the first day of school, Bright asks for a raise of hands of those who feel a bit edgy, and she raises her hand.

"Some of the students find it surprising that the teacher may also be nervous on the first day," she said. "There is a nervousness. Teachers can feel like the kids on the night before the first day of school; worried that you might not wake up on time or that you have everything done to prepare for the first day."

Bright's preparation includes reading up and learning about her students in advance, monitoring where reading levels are and preparing to sharpen them up if there has been a summer slide, which is typical.

The first week of lessons are pre-planned so students can begin learning on the first day.

The reward for Bright: "Just seeing students grow."

Dee Dee Bochsler

Bright's veteran cohort Dee Dee Bochsler, a Washington third-grade teacher, shares not only a veteran status but that first-day nervousness along with delight in seeing the extra emphasis on emotional well being.PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Washington Elementary School third-grade  teacher Dee Dee Bochsler has been in education for 32 years, 27 at WES. She finds pure joy in educating young minds.

A Klamath Falls native transplanted to rural Mount Angel, Bochsler is heading into her 27th year at Washington Elementary. The Oregon State University graduate began teaching at St. Paul Parochial School and has been in the teaching business 32 years total — much of that spent tutoring young readers.

Her classroom is a testament to her accentuated reading propensity as it's packed with reading materials.

"I always am nervous coming in, there are butterflies in my stomach," Bochsler confided. "You want it to go well and for the kids to have a positive experience where everything falls into place."

The new full-student experience with the added importance of social and emotional health will help toward that end.

"I'm glad that has been given an official stamp," Bochsler said. "We can make it part of the routine and think about how you are treating other people, and recognize the needs of students."

Bochsler evinces a buoyant attitude, is quick with a laugh and enjoys her position as one who guides young minds. It's easy to see how that could resonate well with her students.

That may also explain why there is a familial legacy budding in her chosen profession: her daughter, Theresa Bochsler is a third-grade teacher at WSD's Nellie Muir Elementary School.

"I always look forward to meeting the new kids with their different personalities," Dee Dee Bochsler said, adding that the character of the Woodburn community enhances that.

"I love it here...I love being in the classroom; I love the community and the parents," she said. "It's just a joyful job."

That despite the first-day jitters.

"I think I'm ready to go. I just need to get through that first day."

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Success Alternative High School social studies teacher Stephanie Burns keeps a Dominican Republic flag on the wall behind her desk. She began her teaching careeer in that country where she spent three years teaching.

Stephanie Burns

Having a positive enviroment is a crucial part of learning, and Success Alternative High School social studies teacher Stephanie Burns is well aware of that.

Burns, who married over the summer, brought a few things to heighten the environment of her classroom: a couple of plants and a diffuser, which she described as essentially a fancy air freshener.

The Western Oregon University graduate, who hails from Tigard, loved the college campus and town where she studied. In the same vein, she appreciates the environs of the school where she teaches, which is now going into its second year.

The building is a brightly-lit, energy-efficient marvel that was practically shoe-horned into the school district lot on which it sits. PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Success Alternative High School social studies teacher Stephanie Burns said the modern facilities of the school building creates an environment students are proud of and provides them a prime place to grow.

"This is an alternative school, so it's nice that these kids have a new building they can in, a place where they can grow into their potential," Burns said. "Kids come to school early; they are proud to be here."

The first year in a brand new school did take some adjustment to the new environment, but it was clear from the get go that this was a vast improvement over the renovated First Street building that previously housed the district's alternative high school.

Other adornments in Burns's classroom include three flags: the U.S. flag, the Mexican flag and the flag of the Dominican Republic. Why the Dominican Republic?

Burns, who is going into her forth year with the district, began her teaching in the Dominican Republic.

A WOU graduate was the principal of a school there, and he needed a teacher. Fresh out of school, Burns decided she would apply, basically just as a lark and to get used to sending out her resume.

She was hired.

Within two weeks she was on a plane heading to the Caribbean. In retrospect, if it hadn't had been such an initial whirlwind, she may have talked herself out of it. She's glad she did not, as her first three years of teaching in that foreign land were memorable ones.

"It was just mostly fun doing it," Burns said. "But I wasn't able to make any progress with my Masters while I was down there, so I came back."

She's happy to have landed in Woodburn.

Burns also has a touch of the new-school-year nerves and the excitement that other teachers share.

"There are a lot of new students coming in, and I'm excited about that," she said. "You always get nervous before the school year, and I think that is a good thing.

"But mostly, getting up with the alarm is the hardest part. I get used to sleeping in during the summer."

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Nellie Muir fifth-grade teacher Gumaro Iniguez said over his 17 years at the school he has found the students to be well behaved and well mannered.

Gumaro Iniguez

The copier was a busy spot at Nellie Muir where new-teacher mentor Serge Lopez was printing out the playbook for those he would guide, and veteran 5th-grade teacher Gumaro Iniguez was getting the paperwork ready for his module classroom as well.

Moments later in the classroom, Iniguez sounded like supply-clerk going over the inventory as he itemized all the supplies and organizational prep work he would have completed to be ready for the first day.

"Here in our classroom we do dual or bilingual instruction, 50-percent English and 50-percent Spanish," Iniguez said. "It goes in six-week intervals: six weeks in Spanish, then six weeks in English."

Originally from East Los Angeles, Iniguez has taught at Nellie Muir for his entire 17-year career. He's proud of the school and equally proud of the legacy of students he's been treated with as an educator.

"I have three students coming in this year who I had taught all their siblings," he said. "In all, over the years, I have had eight students who were siblings of previous students."

Iniguez enjoys greeting the new students and getting to know their parents. One of the reasons he's so positive about the Nellie Muir experience is the way he's seen the students comport themselves.

"Our students are very well behaved, very well mannered," he said. "I don't have discipline issues."

Iniguez is also supportive of the emotional well-being emphasis. He said Nellie Muir has a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program which puts more emphasis on that element of the full student.

"It helps the students develop a consciousness about the world around them and about the people around them," he said. "We have a very good counselor at this school, and she's aware of any (hardships) and checks on students with those."

Iniguez is a traveled sort, having studied at seven different institutions and owning degrees from Cal. Poly Pomona and Southern Oregon University. But that doesn't diminish his excitement for the beginning of an elementary school year.

"For me, it's an exciting time of the year; I'm excited to see the new students," he said. "Primarily, students are excited for the new year. They get to know their new teacher, and the parents get to know their teacher too."

Dalia Lopez

Nellie Muir 1st-grade teacher will have a unique story to share with her students this year.

Lopez is in her second year of teaching; she taught second grade last year. She was busy Thursday setting up the dÉcor in her classroom to make a pleasant environment for the newcomers, perhaps similar to the one she stepped into roughly a couple of decades ago.

"I went to first grade at this school," she recalled. "It's funny how things work out. After first grade, I transferred to Lincoln Elementary."PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Some 17 years ago Dalia Lopez entered an Nellie Muir Elemetary School classroom as a first-grade student. This year she enters one as a first-grade teacher.

Lopez is Woodburn School District through and through, having attended French Prairie Middle School and graduating from Woodburn High School in 2014. She went directly to George Fox and studied to be a teacher.

Her WSD experiences were influential in that decision.

"I had really great teachers in Woodburn School District who were inspiring; they inspired me to become a teacher," she said.

She looks forward to telling her students that she once sat in the desks where they are currently sitting.

"What I like about Woodburn is it feels like home because culture is celebrated here, and it is celebrated in this school," Lopez said, citing Baile Folklorico as an example. "I think that helps to build a community in our school."

Like all teachers, she is busy getting the environs and lesson plans ready for her students.

"Yes, there is a lot of preparation to do," Lopez said. "It's exciting for the students to meet the new teacher, and hopefully they will be less nervous when the come in and get settled.

"My hope is that the students will come in and see familiar faces and (bond) and that they will also get to know the knew faces, the students who they will be learning with all year."

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Washington Elementary School Kindergarten teacher Irma Soto said instilling the joy of learning into students at a young age prepares them to be lifelong learners.

Irma Soto

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, or so it's often said. And Washington Kindergarten teacher Irma Soto believes that first impression in school is the most important and lasting.

"Kindergarten is its own deal," Soto said. "I get very excited about receiving the new kids.

"The trick with Kindergarten is to teach them a love of learning; teach them that they are lifelong learners and that learning is fun and engaging. So when they go up through the grades, they have that foundation and self-confidence."

That is a lesson for life.

It starts early for Soto. The school held a Kindergarten Jump Start a week or two earlier so the tads could come in by themselves and get used to the environment without all the big kids around.

Soto is also a firm believer in the mental health emphasis.

"Thank goodness," she enthused. "Looking at each child as they come in, and looking at them as a whole person – that is exceptionally important."

Soto is also a WSD product, a 1988 graduate of WHS. She's spent 24 years total teaching and 20 years with WSD.

"I greatly look forward to not only meeting with the students, but getting to know the families and work with them," she said.

She said the reward for her is having an imprint on a child's life that will help them grow as a person throughout their lives. And there is no better grade level to do just that.

"Kindergarten is THE most important year of their educational career," Soto asserted.

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