A Caring Culture at Conestoga Elementary

A Caring Culture at Conestoga Elementary

By Tyler Dahlgren

NCSA Communications Specialist

“Think about all of the educators you’ve had in your life,” Dr. Beth Johnsen says during every interview, a lead into the most significant question she will ask each prospective teacher.

“Are some teachers better than others?”

It's not a trick question. Johnsen is looking for one answer.

“Yes, so when they say that right away, that’s what I want to hear,” Dr. Johnsen says. “Some teachers are better than others, and it’s the ones who care. The “C” stands for Conestoga, but it also stands for care, and that’s been our mantra for the last four years.”

Johnsen has only known public schools. She sees them as the heart and soul of a community and feels the culture of that community is defined, in large part, by the administrators, teachers and students in the school system.

“Our kids watch and model how they are treated by others,” Johnsen said in a powerful piece of testimony sent to NPSA. “They learn how to cope with failure and how to thrive with success in public schools. The support systems knitted into public schools, especially at Conestoga, are what makes our culture and climate better than other educational environments.”

The support systems Johnsen wrote of would never be as important as they were in the face of unfathomable tragedy last October.

Outside, piercingly cold wind howls under a misleading bright winter sunshine.

It’s a quiet and calm Friday morning in Murray, Nebraska. Though, in a town its size, quiet and calm is the norm.

The elementary school sits on the northern edge of town. The largest building in Murray, it also houses the Conestoga Public School administrative offices.

The unmistakable laughter of first and second-graders echoes through the hallways of a school that continues to heal, together, from an October 20th house fire that took the lives of three students and an entire family that was, according to Johnsen, the “type of people that everyone was drawn to.”

The loss of Mike and Michelle Speer, sixth-grader Elli, second-grader Adilynn, 5-year-old kindergartener Emma and 2-year-old Anniston shook the community, and the school, to its core.

“They (Mike and Michelle) had so many friends, and they were just the type of people you can relate to,” Johnsen said. “The girls were adorable. Sweetest things ever.”

At 7 o’clock the morning after the fire, administrators were gathered in an office, and the devastating news was shared. Floored and shocked, school officials knew that they needed to react.

Teachers’ cars would start to flow into the parking lot in about 20 minutes. A day that would test the mettle of everyone at Conestoga Elementary was under way. Through heartbreak, school leaders needed to find resolve.

“We knew we had to get the teachers contacted first,” Johnsen said. “We wanted to make it discrete, without causing chaos, and let each group know separately. We had to relive watching their reactions over and over. It was horrible.”

At the same time that teachers were trying to hold it together, crisis teams from surrounding schools were being sent. And unassuming students were on their way to school.

Megan Glazebrook and Chelsea Stepanek are born-to-be educators, grew up playing school, and deviated very slightly, if at all, from the plan when it came time to join the professional world.

Jenn Mandeville comes from a family of teachers, but started as a business major in college before a job at a daycare stole her heart.

They’re the type of educators Johnsen searches for during the hiring process. Caring, passionate, and engulfed in their craft, which is designed around whatever is best for the student.

All the college in the world can’t fully prepare one for everything that comes with being a teacher. It certainly didn’t prepare them for the pain of October 20th.

Glazebrook, a second-grade teacher who started at Conestoga in 2015, worried about a rumored job shortage while student teaching and wondered what things would be like in a classroom of her own, when she would shoulder complete responsibility for each kid in the room.

Mandeville, a third-grade teacher, and Stepanek, a sixth-grade teacher at the school since 2012, had similar thoughts.

“I faced more challenges than I thought I would, but it has been more rewarding than I ever anticipated,” Stepanek said.

The relationships drove Stepanek into teaching. The interactions and bonds she has built with her students over the last five years have been stronger than she anticipated.

“Obviously you expect it a little,” she said of her connection with the kids. “But you don’t realize how truly impactful those relationships with your students can be.”

Glazebrook said Conestoga Elementary is filled with teachers that love and support their students. The news that morning left them speechless.

“You worry about the things you can’t control and change,” Glazebrook said. “You can only reach so far as a teacher, but it’s hard not to worry about those situations that are bigger and tougher than what we can manage.”

Johnsen’s biggest concern was keeping the students from finding out at school. Parents would surely see the daytime news, and several kids have cell phones. If one student found out, a domino effect would follow and a collective meltdown could ensue. The administration had a plan in place in case word spread.

They never had to use it.

“We felt that we needed to be that rock for the moment,” Johnsen said.

Inside the classrooms, teachers did their best to hide overwhelming sadness.

“If one co-teacher couldn’t go in front of the class, then there was another one willing to step in for them,” Mandeville said.

Crisis teams from Weeping Water, Ralston, Plattsmouth, Louisville, Elmwood-Murdock and Nebraska City had reached out and were beginning to fill the hallways. The support came fast, and it came in abundance.

“There were constantly people in the hallways and, though they weren’t people I knew, I knew they worked for the crisis team,” Glazebrook said. “They were amazingly supportive. At the drop of a hat, they were here that morning.”

“And they were here even after school got out,” Stepanek added. “They stayed. It was eye-opening for me how many people cared. Even though they didn’t know the family, they were willing to jump in a car right away to come help us.”

That night, parents received messages informing them that crisis rooms would be available Friday. Not one sixth-grade student was absent.

“Everybody was here that day,” Johnsen said. “Nobody kept their kid at home to protect them, and it was a Friday, so that would have been easy to do.”

The community looked to the school for guidance. And the school stood strong.

“Parents trusted us to make good decisions for their kids, and trusted the school to care for their kids,” Johnsen said. “That’s pretty special, I think.”

Three months later, and Conestoga continues to model how they take care of each other, Johnsen says.

“Kids watch and see how classmates recover, and also how they help one another carry-on, to understand how life works,” Johnsen wrote in her testimony. “The experience in public school are more valuable than what is found in textbooks, worksheets, and great lectures. At Conestoga, our motto is ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’. We’ve said this often and live by it. It’s our culture and it influences our climate.”

The healing process, Stepanek says, is ongoing. It will be for quite some time.

“They are tough kids and pretty resilient,” she said. “They are all healing in their own ways, and remembering. If us teachers need someone to talk to, or a break or help of any kind, there is multiple people we could go to.”

The road to recovery has included a balloon release at the Cougar Halloween event. Pink has become the color for remembrance for the community. Some classrooms are lighted pink. A pink bow was placed on top of the PTO Christmas tree. Omaha firefighters donated pink lights around the holidays and walked around town distributing them.

Glazebrook was recently chatting with one of her fellow teachers.

“She said, ‘You always let the kids hug you, but now those hugs mean a little bit more and you let them hold on a little bit longer,” Glazebrook said. “The students do just love you.”

At Conestoga Elementary, the love goes both ways.