Sitting cross-legged in a circle on the carpet, the 13 kindergartners in Pam Ward’s Sussex School class carefully explained the favorite memories Ward helped them create this year.
Misha Tenenbaum liked going swimming at the YMCA and the school trip to Flathead Lake last fall.
Alyssa Baggerly liked going to her “special spots” outdoors to write in her field journal.
“I like when we went to go on the bear hunt,” Sydney Yung said.
The “bear hunt” happened on Leap Year Day when Ward’s students came to school to discover the ceramic bears they left on the shelf had gone missing. All that they could find was clues to the bears’ possible whereabouts.
A daylong adventure on the school’s little yellow school bus led them around the city to find their bears. Some were found at the Missoula Public Library. Others were at the Missoula YMCA. Yung found hers at Big Dipper Ice Cream.
Mostly, the students agreed, their favorite memories came from all the adventures they’d taken with “Pam.”
A longtime teacher at Sussex, Ward was voted “Favorite Teacher” in the Missoulian’s competition honoring Teacher Appreciation Week.
The word “adventure” comes up a lot when Ward’s class describes their favorite memories. That’s because of Ward’s focus on learning through celebration and through experiences shared by the entire class.
“She takes everyone on epic adventures,” said Katie Whisenand, the teaching assistant in Ward’s classroom. “Working with this age group, sometimes you need to go to Plan B or even Plan C. Pam always has this way of making anything a fun adventure.”
Sometimes, that means staying inside the classroom.
Fox Winterer, another of Ward’s kindergartners, said it was hard to pick a favorite memory. But he did like the potato-growing science experiment the class is working on now. The potatoes sitting in water in the classroom window could, Winterer thought, maybe turn into trees.
On the 100th day of school, Ward surprised her class with Ms. Sula, a blue parakeet. They had finished a unit on birds and now take care of Sula each day. A class pet teaches responsibility and helps encourage students’ curiosity about wildlife, Ward said.
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Sula’s cage sits right next the classroom’s loft, which was custom-designed for the students by Ward.
A large tree “grows” on the loft wall. Underneath the ladder to the loft is Big Black Birthday Bear’s home. “B4,” as he is sometimes known, is rarely seen, but he does set a candle in the upstairs loft window on the morning of each student’s birthday. He leaves them a gift, too.
“It’s just so enchanting. Even the students who want to act tough, they get this twinkle in their eye when they’re waiting to see what (B4) has done,” Whisenand said.
Allowing the class to have experiences together, especially outdoors, helps them interact and learn from one another.
“They start to appreciate all of their different talents and experiences, and know too, they’re getting better at different things themselves,” Ward said. “They learn more from each other than they do from me. I’m so proud of them.”
Ward began her teaching career as a swim instructor at the YMCA. She did her student teaching in a kindergarten classroom and has spend 12 years teaching kindergarten at Sussex. Ward has also taught second, third, fourth and fifth grade at Sussex.
It makes sense that Ward was voted favorite teacher because she creates unforgettable bonds with students.
“So many students come back, if they’re in college or just have a day off school, they come see Pam,” Whisenand said.
Ward has a similar respect for all her students.
“My favorite teachers are, of course, the kids. I learn so much from them.”
As winner of the Missoulian’s favorite teacher contest, Ward received a $150 Visa gift card and gift basket Monday, donated by the contest’s sponsor, Blackfoot Telecommunications Group.
Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.