Teaching, like perhaps no other modern profession, embodies the selfsame virtues as motherhood.
There is, in teaching, an emphasis on learning and installing in students the traits of rectitude, good manners, diligence. But all of those stem from an undeniable desire to see a child brought up right, to honorable personhood, and to do so with faith, hope, kindness and the greatest of all these: love.
It is fitting then, that National Teacher Appreciation Week, this week, should be yoked to Mother's Day on Sunday.
The process and institution of education is, in the eyes of the law, acting in loco parentis — in the stead of a parent. Sift through the process and the institution and you come very quickly to the person who does occupy that parental, that motherly, space. It's a teacher.
In observance of Teacher Appreciation Week and in preparation for this Mother's Day, The Papillion Times sat down with mothers in the teaching profession from the Papillion-La Vista School District and their children, who also entered the profession in the district. What we heard were amazing tales of endurance and inspiration, of what it means to have a calling.
These are their stories.
'We share that passion'
On their way into work most days, Jackie and Ashley Torczon have a kind of staff meeting between one another.
The mother-daughter pair of teachers in the Papillion-La Vista School District will call on the drive in to their respective schools — mom Jackie at Golden Hills, daughter Ashley at Patriot — and get a briefing on what the day has in store.
“I feel so lucky to have that,” said Ashley Torczon, who is in her sixth year as a PLSD teacher, teaching first grade this year. “Talking every morning really helps to get us in a good frame of mind and reminds us of how much we love to do this job.”
“It's always exciting stuff,” Jackie adds. “It's never, 'Oh, I gotta go to school today.' Or, 'I have so much trouble with this kid or that one.' It's always, 'I'm going to try this today and I'm excited to see how it goes.' We share ideas, what works, what doesn't work so well. It's a call I look forward to every morning. And if she's not there, I talk to her answering machine.”
Jackie is a third-grade teacher in her 12th year in the district, a career she began when her daughters were just finishing up their high school careers and about to move into college.
She started as a paraprofessional at St. Gerald Catholic School in Ralston, but the dream to eventually finish her college degree and achieve teaching certification grew out of an overwhelming desire to foster the next generations, something that started with parenting her own children.
“That's one thing that really stays with you in this profession,” Jackie said.
“That child is someone else's child and they're entrusting you with their education and well-being. I think both of us feel that trust and realize that, in our classrooms, all our kids are family. We treat them like that.”
Ashley remembers the joy of having her mother home during her early school days. That joy became pride as she watched Jackie pursue her dream, going back to school when Ashley was a high schooler.
Home is also where Ashley's desire to become a teacher began to form.
“It was great to have her home when we were growing up,” Ashley said. “Our basement was transformed into Ashley's classroom. There were desks, bulletin boards, books. That's where I first started to develop that passion. I saw that same thing in my mom. There was always a passion to nurture kids and teach them. We share that passion. What a great thing for a mother and daughter to share.”
Over the course of their parallel careers, their classes, at just slightly different grade levels in buildings separated by several miles, Ashley and Jackie have fostered one another's students.
There are usually several exchanges over the course of a school year: little treats or school supplies that arrive via the district's inter-school mail service.
They've created a pen pal network between their classes.
“They love the idea that there are two of us,” Jackie said. “That there's another 'Miss Torczon.'”
This summer, after Ashley gets married — she's decided to take her husband's name — she said she'll feel a little tinge of sadness to leave only one Mrs. Torczon.
“But we'll explain it to the kids,” Ashley said. “They'll still get notes and pencils and treats. I'm still her daughter.”
Ashley will still envy her mother's huge classroom library and ask Jackie for ways to grow her own.
And for Jackie, of course there will still be someone to call with all those technology problems.
“She grew up with it and it mystifies me,” she said with a laugh. “But in the end, we've gone through this journey together and I can say that every day is a wonderful new adventure. I love it. I couldn't think of anyone better to share as a partner in this.”
The family teaching tree
Going to a ballgame as a family in the metro area can be a curious proposition for the Kimball family of Papillion.
With seven teachers in the family, each answering to either Mr., Mrs. or Miss Kimball, a student's cry of recognition whips around a lot of heads.
“Every time we're at the ballpark and you hear someone say, 'Mrs. Kimball!,' four people turn around,” said Stephanie Kimball, a mathematics teacher at Papillion-La Vista High School. “You have to turn, and we all do, just to see who it is, who belongs to this student.”
The same goes for the Messrs. Kimball, who have their own stories to tell of mistaken identity and of having to convince someone that they are not their other brother. Or their father.
“I teach P.E. and coach baseball, just like my dad,” said Jesse Kimball, who teaches at Patriot Elementary and is Stephanie's husband. “And I'll have kids who will tell parents, 'I have Mr. Kimball for P.E.' And the parents will say, thinking it's my dad: 'Mr. Kimball is still around?'”
It's all part of having an extended family that shares a table at Thanksgiving and Christmas and another, more extended family inside the walls of the schools the Kimballs sometimes refer to as second homes.
The matriarch of the Kimball teaching clan is Penny Kimball, a 22-year veteran of the Papillion-La Vista School District, currently stationed in the second grade at Portal Elementary. Her husband, Butch, recently retired after 32 years as a coach and teacher in the district.
Now, sons Jesse and Tucker have taken up the family business in PLSD, along with daughter Katie, who teaches in the Omaha Public Schools.
Then, there are daughters-in-law Stephanie and Cara, a sixth-grade teacher in the Westside Community Schools, who have also come to take up the educator's mantle.
Looking out over this assembled throng on the week of Mother's Day, a day when nurturing and caring is celebrated at a familial level, Penny waxed philosophical about the teaching tree which stems from her, what it means to be a mother and a teacher, and what it must further mean to be the child of teaching parents.
“They must've always felt they had everything they needed growing up,” she said. “Because it's not a profession where you will make a lot of money.
“But they must've seen that they could provide for a family as teachers and felt called to the work. I've always felt that teaching is a profession where you can be doing your job and, at the same time, giving back to the world. Other people, in other jobs, they go do volunteer work to give back. A teacher is always doing that work.”
Penny Kimball's children and children-in-law do approach the profession in such a manner.
“I can remember my mom saying, 'Don't think this job is easy,'” said Tucker, the youngest Kimball, who teaches fourth grade at Anderson Grove Elementary and admits education was not always his career goal. “Seeing the community involvement end of it and seeing your parents give back the way they have, I always knew I wanted to come back to this community and do something for it.”
This is a sentiment that registers immensely for Penny, who said she didn't promote education as a career path among her children but, when she saw it was their choice, gave them a simple directive.
“'Do this well,' I told them all,” she said. “Don't do it because you want your summers off. Do this so people will say to me, 'My son or daughter had your son or daughter as a teacher and they really loved them.' I don't think there's a greater compliment one can get in any profession than that.”
Although she went into service in a different district, Katie said her decision to enter teaching sprang from seeing her mother in action in just such a way.
She still has some surreal moments standing before her class of sixth-graders at OPS's Masters Elementary when a voice, almost disembodied, emerges from her mouth.
“I'm very similar to how she is,” Katie said. “I'll say something in class and have to think for a minute and say, 'That's exactly how Mom said it!' I like those moments.”
Another Kimball daughter-in-law, Cara, who is married to Spencer — the eldest Kimball, who went into banking — and teaches at Rockbrook Elementary in Westside, said it's a blessing to have a mother-in-law in the profession, especially when the school calendar provides for a day off for Penny and she has occasion to come visit Cara's sixth-grade classroom.
“My class loves it when that happens,” Cara said. “They're excited because they've got two Mrs. Kimballs in the classroom. But it's great to have her there to bounce ideas off, to talk to. I think we all feel that way. We get together and all have stories: 'This is a new one. Have you had this happen yet?' Things like that.”
Friday nights at the Kimball manse inevitably turn into a decompression session for the week's educational adventures.
Penny and Butch listen intently as their family shares what they themselves are learning from that extended school family.
“It's a blessing,” Penny said. “And you realize that more every day. As a mother, or as a teacher, those are your kids. You get territorial, just like moms do. You want to see them succeed.”
As mother-daughter teaching tandems go, Brigitte and Ann Otto came around to the profession in their own inimitable way.
Mom Brigitte was the teacher first, heading up a preschool for 16 years, which Ann and her sister, Cassie, both attended. But it was Ann who entered the Papillion-La Vista School District first, becoming a mathematics teacher at Papillion Junior High School in 2001, two years before Brigitte finished her certification to teach second grade at Golden Hills.
“I could and quite often I did,” Brigitte said of her early days with PLSD and using Ann as a sounding board for general questions about the district. “I probably had more questions when I was finishing up my degrees, because she'd been there, too. But I always think it's interesting that we both ended up getting jobs in Papillion and have been able to share that experience together.”
For her part, Ann, though she spent many an hour in her mother's preschool classrooms and helping out with the youngsters, never saw herself going into a career in education.
“First, I knew from seeing what my mom did and helping her out in her classroom with preschoolers that if I did go into teaching, I couldn't do elementary,” Ann said. “It's not that I didn't love the kids. It's just that I realized I did not fit that niche. Everyone has that niche and for me, it's middle school.”
After graduating from the College of St. Mary with a degree in math, Ann first went into another career field before she circled back around to teaching.
At roughly the same time, Brigitte was looking at taking steps into an elementary classroom and Ann's sister, Cassie, was also working towards teacher certification.
“We all started around the same time,” Ann said. “I think that's been very beneficial for all of us.”
The family connection extends to regular dinners where Ann, Brigitte, Cassie and her husband, Russ, also a teacher, will go round for round with ideas, stories, triumphs and disasters, bringing into the conversation the extended families they have in class.
The students also feel the connection.
“Quite often, they will cry out, 'Mom!' when they're excited and they need me,” Brigitte said. “They're mortified when it happens, but it speaks to our larger purpose as teachers. For a lot of kids, we are the nurturing presence in their lives. We are there to help them learn, to be a caring presence.”
The students in second grade must eventually step into third, eighth-graders must eventually matriculate into high school.
“It changes every year, but you never let go of the kids you had,” Brigitte said.
As Golden Hills is a feeder school to Papillion Junior High, Brigitte and Ann will usually compare rosters to see who Ann might have in class that her mother had.
“I always want her to tell them hello,” Brigitte said. “I'll give her cards to give them. You know, those kids might need that. Something like that might brighten their day. They need that nurturing, still.”
While junior high students are less apt to cry for motherly aid, Ann said she nonetheless sees herself in a motherly role as she helps seventh- and eighth-graders transition from the childhood experiences of elementary school to the increasingly adult world of high school.
“I learned that from her,” Ann said of Brigitte's approach to nurturing. “She radiates it in her classroom with her kids. In middle school, it is different. It's not that the kids don't need that nurturing, they just need it in another form. One hundred percent, my mom has inspired that in me.”
Ann stopped just a moment, turned to Brigitte, and said, “Thanks, Mom.”