Paonia Elementary School second grade teacher Jodi Simpson is passionate about pedagogy. She understands that the important things kids learn in school isn't accomplished through testing, but by experiencing life and all its wonders.
This fall her second grade students are studying the monarch butterfly. She points out a tiny line on a milkweed stalk. A magnifying glass reveals a beautiful, delicate black and white striped caterpillar that will one day become a monarch and fly away. Inside the "nursery," a special butterfly basket, hangs a delicate chrysalis, its surface shining gold "nature's glitter" under the light. On the school lawn is a tent where an adult monarch flaps its wings in anticipation of being set free.
"They just love it," she said. Seeing the butterfly in each stage of life, from larva to pupa to adult, will stick with them more than reading any text book. And they'll always remember letting the adult out to fly south for the winter.
Simpson is among six finalists named by the Colorado Department of Education for Colorado Teacher of the Year. She is the only Western Slope teacher in the running for the award. "The depth of talent in our teaching ranks across Colorado is extraordinary and exceptional," said state interim education commission Katy Anthes. "I don't envy the judges having to choose from these amazing individuals." The winner is automatically a nominee for National Teacher of the Year.
"I just feel so honored to know that I'm appreciated," said Simpson. When she learned about the nomination in June she thought it was a mistake when she saw a small tag with the name of Paonia High School English teacher Kriss Allen alongside hers, and asked if Allen was the nominee, because she's such a wonderful teacher.
Allen, who nominated Simpson for the award, said she's not surprised that Simpson is a finalist. "She is so absolutely, freshly genuine," said Allen. "She is a constant positive influence on her kids."
When Allen learned about the call for nominations, she immediately thought of Simpson, who was son Lane's first-grade teacher. He's now in fifth grade and still shares stories of when she was his teacher. "She puts so much love into each child, said Allen. "I really got to see who she is as a teacher."
Allen said her daughter will soon be in elementary school and she knows that Simpson will make a difference in her life.
Simpson has been making a difference in children's lives for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PES in 2001, she taught preschool while her own two children were small. She has also authored books for Scholastic and Scholastic Instructor Magazine.
"I've known this is what I want to do since forever," said Simpson, who grew up the youngest in a family of nine children. Life was very hectic and hard, and her mother didn't get much help from her dad, she said. "When I got on that school bus every day, I knew I was going to a wonderful place called 'school.'" And school was a place "where teachers loved me."
Her own memories, she said, "are not about test scores." They are about projects and games and working together. She recalls how her teacher would read to the class and peer over the top of the book at all the faces while tiling her reading glasses. She wanted so badly to be the one peering over books at her own students, seeing all their little faces, and remarking, "What a beautiful paragraph that was."
As a nominee, Simpson was required to create a one-minute video, which is on YouTube, gather three letters of recommendation, and write six essays on topics ranging from her teaching philosophy and accomplishments to current issues in education. As the number of nominees was whittled down to the final six, she said, she learned more and more about why she loves what she does.
In one essays she describes peeking through the school window into the classroom and seeing her teacher. "I would look in and I would wave and I'd be so excited to see what we were going to do together."
Now, she said, "I peek in my own window every day and say, 'What are we going to do together?'"
One of the greatest rewards is when a student become the teacher and teaches her something. At least once every day she lets her students know how proud she is when they point out a detail she didn't know. "I think the best part is when they say, 'This is really important.'"
While much of the focus on teaching is in tests and standards, being with the kids is really the heart of teaching, she said. "Fifty million kids come every day to school. They need to come to a place where the teacher says, 'Your dreams can come true here. I can help you. I believe in you.' Their job is to make the world a better place and build a better democracy." It's not the test scores, it's not all the data. "No one ever said I want to be a teacher because I want to fill out a data sheet."
"It's not easy, it's a lot of work, but teachers have to believe they have the most important job in the world, and we have to believe that every day."
Simpson and husband Craig have been married 27 years. Son Skyler is currently studying nursing at the University of Colorado - Boulder, and daughter Casey graduated from Colorado State University in Fort Collins. She and her husband are both teachers.
Simpson lists among her inspirations each staff member at PES, "Because No. 1, we are family. Everybody is happy for each other's success." The teachers all share responsibility for all the students, regardless of what class they are in.
Debbie Miller, author of "Reading With Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades," is also a big inspiration. Her first year of teaching was a shock, she said. Then she discovered Miller's book. "I clung to it like it was a life preserver."
Her students are thrilled about her nomination, said Simpson, and one even told her she gets his vote. Simpson said she plans to teach elementary education the remainder of her career. "I don't think I would change," she said.