By CRISTINA JANNEY
Suzanne Leikam is always looking for that spark in her students’ eyes — that moment when she knows they finally grasp a concept.
It is her mission and what has driven her for the last 23 years as a teacher, 20 of which have been at Roosevelt Elementary School.
Leikam was selected as the December Hays Post Teacher of the Month.
“There are many wonderful aspects of teaching,” she said, “But one of my favorite is what I call the ‘ah-ha’ moment. It’s the time when a student has worked really hard to understand a concept, and they finally get it. There is a great satisfaction seeing the confidence they gain at that moment when their hard work has paid off and they feel that sense of accomplishment.”
She explained that moment.
“It is like a light bulb going off, and you know it. Their eyes light up, and sometimes they go, ‘Ah-ha, I got it!’ You can see they brighten up. I feel great for them because they have worked so hard to figure it out. They went through each strategy and tried to work it out. Then when they finally find something that works for them, they say, ‘Ah-ha!’ and it makes you feel great. Look, see what happened. You worked hard, you were persistent and you figured it out, and you did that on your own.”
Leikam’s path to becoming a teacher was similar to her students’ struggles with math problems and history. Leikam, 57, knew she wanted to be a teacher from an early age. She has a piece of yellowed Big Chief paper stuck to one of her file cabinets that she wrote when she was in second grade.
In large printed letters it says, “I want to be a Teacher beCause I can Teach The Children games. I can Teach The children how to read. I can play gams With them.”
She said she had mentors along the way who helped her realize she was a good student.
“Because there were times that I felt that I wasn’t the smartest one in the class,” she said, “and then you have those teachers who nurture you and build up your confidence and they make you realize, ‘Oh, yeah, I can do this.’ That’s the kind of teacher I want to be as well.”
Mr. Zwink in seventh and eighth grade showed her she was capable as a student, and Roger Ruder, her high school history teacher at Marian High School, sparked her interest in history.
“(Mr. Ruder) was the one who lit the spark for me,” she said. “It was the way he taught. He would attach little stories to information we needed to know. That helped me remember the information.”
However, life intervened. Leikam got married and had a family. She went to work for Roosevelt, but as a secretary. Finally, the “ah-ha” moment struck her. She was in her 30s, and she was teaching second-grade religion courses for St. Mary’s Immaculate Heart of Mary. She enjoyed the experience so much she enrolled in the education program at Fort Hays State University.
Going back to school was difficult, but Leikam said she appreciated school more as an older student.
“It was bittersweet,” she said of going back to school,” she said. “When I went back to school in my 30s and saw these 18-year-olds and they were in a place where I was just getting to in my 30s, I said, ‘Wow, I have wasted so much of my time, but it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do. … Once I got my mind set on something, I got really focused on what I wanted to do.”
Leikam has worked with every level of elementary student and said she each grade has its pros and cons.
She loves kindergarteners’ innocence and honesty.
“If I wore something that didn’t look good on me, I had a little girl who would say that didn’t look very good on you,” she said. “They would work very hard for me.”
Fifth-graders, which she teaches now, are more independent.
“The reason I chose to work with elementary students is their infectious love of learning,” she said. “At this age, students are still idealistic and every day is a new day of wonder and excitement about something they have learned.”
Leikam seeks to prepare her students for what they will learn later in school.
“I make the comparison between elementary school and the foundation of a house,” she said. “You need a solid foundation to support the rest of the house and that is how I view teaching elementary students. What we teach the students at this age is the foundation of their education to be built upon each year. As elementary teachers, we are also very aware that we set the tone for how our students view school and their attitude toward learning.”
Leikam not only tries to help prepare her students academically, but socially and emotionally as well. She said it is the most challenging aspect of being a teacher.
At one time, only a few of her students came from homes with divorced parents, and now it’s at least half. During her years of teaching, she has had to deal with children in poverty and who have been homeless and many other situations Leikam said children should not have to deal with.
“We have to be good listeners,” she said. “When they come in and they just need someone to talk to and it is a release for them, I am here to listen and they know that is as far as it goes — that they don’t have to worry about me going here or there and talking about it with anyone else. Sometimes they just need to express what is going on, and if there is something that I can’t help them with, I refer them to the counselor. …
“That is probably the hardest part is when you see them at such a young age dealing with stressful situations that I myself personally have never had to deal with and yet here they are 10-years-old and they are pushing through it.”
Teachers routinely help students with basic needs, such as coats or a pair of shoes to replace one with holes in the them.
“You just try to be there to be a good listener for them and to reassure them that, yes, it is a rough path now, but things do get better,” she said.
Leikam said she hopes to leave her students with a sense that she cares for them as individuals.
“I hope to instill in them some values,” she said. “We talk a lot about respect. Being respectful to each other and yourself and especially to the staff. I try to build on that respect, and I hope that has an effect on how they treat others.”
At the beginning of each school year, she does a study of the same book, “A Hundred Dresses,” which is about bullying.
“I tell them every year that you come to school here to learn, and I want you to be safe here,” she said. “I don’t want you to worry as soon as mom or dad drops you off here someone is going to be saying mean things to you or pinching you where a teacher doesn’t see it.”
She has the children raise their hands if they have been bullied, and Leikam raises her hand. She went to a small school and played football with the boys. One of the boys pushed her down regularly. She remembers vividly one day he hit her in the chest with his knee and she lay gasping on the ground for breath.
The act of raising her own hand helps open up the discussion and allows her to talk to the children about helping others during bullying situations.
“When they ask me about me bullying, I say I am too ashamed to talk about that,” she said. “That is something I don’t even want to talk about. That was a time in my life that wasn’t very good, but I want them to understand. I ask them, ‘Why?’ and a lot of it is that they were bullied.”
Katelyn Hecker, teacher at Lincoln Elementary School, nominated Leikam for Teacher of the Month. Leikam was Hecker’s teacher when she was in elementary school and was her mentor when Hecker was a student teacher. She said Leikam is the reason she became a teacher.
“She is supportive, always welcoming, and extremely compassionate,” Hecker said. “I am so fortunate to be able to say that I started my primary education with her and completed my college education with her!”
Hecker remembered dictating a parent newsletter to Leikam for her mother. Leikam did this for every student and parent weekly. Hecker also remembered feeling special when she got to take the class fish home for the summer.
Hecker said Leikam always gave the students individual attention and she was more like a mom than a teacher to her students.
Leikam said, “Special times for me as a teacher are when I have former students come up to me and say ‘Hi’ and let me know how they are doing. As a fifth-grade teacher, there are times when I see former students who are now young adults, are taller than me, and they … drive! It’s also special when these students share a memory they have of something that we did when I had them in class. However, the most rewarding part of teaching, is when these former students tell me they have decided to become teachers themselves.
“When I think about Katelyn Hecker, my former student who nominated me, I feel my whole career in teaching has been validated.”