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By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Several signs with inspirational phrases hang on the walls inside Michelle Fouts’ first-grade classroom at Bryant Elementary School.
The one with the simplest message – “family” – best describes how the 32-year-old University of Nebraska at Kearney alumna approaches teaching.
That sign is surrounded by photos of Fouts and the 19 students who call her classroom home from 8:15 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. each weekday.
They’re a family in her mind, and Fouts does everything she can to support them.
“I love kids,” she said. “I love helping them figure out how much they’re capable of.”
The Bow Valley native calls Bryant Elementary “one of the happiest places.” That’s where she’s taught since graduating from UNK in 2009, spending two years in special education and six at the second-grade level before transitioning to first grade.
Fouts, who earned her master’s degree from UNK in 2012, said the teachers at Bryant share the same goal of doing what’s best for their students. That attitude is contagious within the walls of the Kearney elementary school.
“(The students) feel the energy from the teachers and how we all get along and how we all work together,” Fouts said.
Bryant Elementary Principal Mark Johnson credits Fouts for helping create this feeling.
“Mrs. Fouts is a tremendous reason why the culture of Bryant has a fun and family-type atmosphere,” he said. “She is constantly coming up with ways to encourage everyone and keeps the morale of the building high.”
Fouts, who dreamed of becoming a teacher when she was a young girl, strives to show youths learning doesn’t have to be boring.
She accomplishes this through hands-on activities that keep students active and engaged. It’s not unusual for passersby to catch some singing and dancing inside her classroom.
“I want every kid to love to learn and to love school,” Fouts said. “That’s one of my main goals when I teach.”
This passion for education and her work with aspiring teachers earned Fouts a spot in UNK’s Academy for Teacher Education Excellence. She received the honor Thursday night during an induction ceremony on campus.
Dena Harshbarger, an assistant professor of teacher education at UNK, praised Fouts for her commitment to future teachers.
Fouts opens her classroom to UNK students so they can observe her work and prepare their own lessons to deliver.
“She provides formative feedback and helpful suggestions to help UNK teacher candidates grow and learn from their experiences at Bryant,” Harshbarger wrote while nominating Fouts for the academy.
Harshbarger and Fouts, who puts an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education at Bryant Elementary, also collaborated on a field trip for all second-graders at Kearney Public Schools. The half-day excursion to study insects at Kearney’s Harmon Park provides a new experience for the grade schoolers while giving UNK science education students an opportunity to implement the practices they’re learning in the classroom.
“Michelle’s vision and leadership continues to impact learners of all ages,” said Harshbarger, who is working with Fouts to develop a similar field experience for first-graders and UNK students.
Fouts, who lives in Wilcox with her husband, Joe, and their 6-month-old son, Weston, said she’s honored to receive the recognition from UNK.
But that’s not why she got into teaching.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Fouts said.
The Academy for Teacher Education Excellence recognizes educators from UNK or partner schools who demonstrate excellence in teaching, a passion for the profession and the ability to inspire future teachers.