Inspired to Teach

By Jen Naylor Gesick

Pictured: Photographs by Grace-Marie Brunken and Ray Im

Whether they helped you learn to like math, discover your favorite book, try something new or just get through a tough class with a passing grade, most people can name one teacher who helped shape the person they became in some way. But who inspired those great teachers to dedicate their lives to helping others learn?

For this month’s Education issue, we spoke to eight local educators and asked them about the one teacher who made the most impact on their lives and how that person influenced their teaching. They represent a variety of schools and subject areas, but through the interviews a recurring theme emerged — the teachers remembered most fondly are those who helped students not just master the material but also showed a genuine interest and helped students grow and even come to a deeper understanding of themselves. And in these instances, those students were guided toward the teaching profession to continue the legacy.


Nicole Fanning

Second Grade, Spring Valley Elementary

Nicole Fanning remembers her kindergarten teacher, Nancy Simpson, for teaching beyond curriculum standards and using real-life teachable moments.

“If there was a spider web in the window, instead of cleaning it out she’d show it to us and teach us about it,” Fanning said. “She made learning fun and instilled a love of learning and curiosity.”

Fanning remembered Simpson being excited about learning.

“That stuck with me and that has been with me as I have taught throughout the years,” she said.

To help bring that excitement for learning to her students, Fanning is taking part in the flexible seating movement happening in classrooms across the country.
Flexible seating includes moveable furniture and things most people wouldn’t expect to see in a conventional classroom. Fanning uses lightweight, stackable desks with wheels so clearing the room to play a game is simple and quick. She also has wobbly stools that flex to move, floor tables, floor chairs, a table that students can sit or stand at to do their work and more.

“They get to choose the best seat for their learning,” she said.

Fanning credited the example her kindergarten teacher set all those years ago as an influence in her desire to use this initiative to instill that love of learning in her students.

“It gives them freedom of choice and ownership over learning, and it is amazing,” she said. “When I give them choice, they take responsibility for their learning and they are more engaged and they have more stamina.”


Beauen Bogner

Theater, Lorena High School

Beauen Bogner describes himself as a “classic late bloomer.” His most impactful teacher came along during his high school years when he took an introductory theater class.

“My teacher, his name is Cliff McClelland,” he said, but most of the students called him “Mac.” He was the one teacher who took a specific interest in Bogner. And while Bogner learned theater in his class, he doesn’t remember thinking how great his technique or methods were.

“What I really remember is that he just loved on me,” he said.

Mac believed in Bogner, and in the environment that Mac fostered with his students, Bogner said he didn’t feel judged or shunned like he did in other circles.

“I just felt like I could come as I was,” he said.

Bogner finally found a place where he belonged.

“That made a huge impact in my development as a person growing up,” he said. “I came out of my shell and came alive, kind of like a flower. I blossomed with a little bit of water. And it’s so cool because I think as a teacher, from my end, I kind of see things from the other lens now.”

Mac and Bogner taught in the same district near Dallas before Bogner moved to Lorena three years ago to rebuild the theater program. He said seeing Mac’s heart for the underserved has influenced the way he teaches.

“I really try to kind of hone in on those kids more,” Bogner said. “When I’m coming into my class, I’m looking for that kid who needs a spot because that’s how Cliff treated me.”


Bronwen Forbay

Voice and opera, McLennan Community College

A Fulbright scholar and accomplished vocal performer, Bronwen Forbay grew up in South Africa during apartheid, a period of about 50 years of institutionalized racial segregation.

“We all attended segregated schools, and that was just the way it was,” Forbay said. “Up until the 1990s, you couldn’t go to school with someone of a different race.”

When she was about 11 years old, things were starting to change. She remembers being encouraged by her choir teacher, Miss Richards, who hadn’t been able to go past a certain point in her own education.

“She told me, ‘You have this musical talent. Don’t give up that dream.’ So that made an impact on me,” Forbay said. “She was the first one to say go for it, just go for it.”

Now as she reflects back, “I love to inspire people the way she inspired me,” Forbay said.

Her vast and varied life experiences have also influenced the way she approaches educating others.

“With my students, I always try to approach it not from where I come from but where they’re coming from,” she said. “Sometimes I encounter my students that haven’t had music in their background or learned a second language. I try to start from where they are and build them up from there. We have an opportunity to impact the entire individual not just in the information we are sharing with them but also in how we do so.”


Shanna Jones

Math, Waco High School, McLennan Community College

Shanna Jones said she feels fortunate that she knew very early in life that she wanted to be a teacher.

“My sister was my first student along with my dolls and my stuffed animals,” she said.

But it was a math teacher who came along a little later who guided her to where she is today. “Math was the one subject that I had to work harder to be good at,” she said. “In fourth grade I had an amazing teacher, Mr. Lance, and he helped me see math in a new way. He told me all math is patterns. He showed me a bunch of tricks, so I thought I wanted to teach everyone these tricks.”

Jones is passionate about math and helping her students learn it the best they can. One of her teaching strategies involves making videos, which she posts to YouTube.

“I make recordings of all my lessons so in case a student felt like the lesson went a little fast, they can go home and watch the videos,” Jones said. “And I have parents that want to help their child at home, and this way they can watch the videos and know exactly what I said.”

The young teacher is committed to seeing each of her students grow.

“I’m not expecting everyone to leave my class and be a math genius, but I want you to leave with some sort of growth,” she said. “I feel like that is what education is about. It’s about you growing as learner.”


Mary Ruth Smith

Fiber arts & fabric surface design, Baylor University

Mary Ruth Smith is an accomplished artist and beloved art professor who came to teaching when there weren’t a lot of choices for women professionally.

“Back in my day, the choices were very limited,” Smith said. “I could be a nurse, or I could be a teacher. That’s about it. Or I could go into clerical work.”

She credits her mother for pushing her to take home economics, even though managing a home was the “furthest thing from my mind,” she said. Once there, she was surprised at what she discovered.

“I loved it, loved it,” she recalled. “Because I found creativity there. You’re working with textiles, you’re working with clothing, you’re working with fabrics. And that made a difference to me. It was hands on. It was more craft-oriented.”

That started her down a path that led her to meeting Miss B.J. Tilly at Radford College.

“She was my home economics teacher that I really, dearly loved,” Smith said. They kept in touch over the years, and it was Miss Tilly who inspired Smith to become a college professor.

Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains in southwest Virginia in coal mining country, art wasn’t something they thought much about and Smith never believed she had much talent, but it was that crafting in home economics that changed her mind.

“Never let a day go by that you don’t learn something,” Smith said. “You can be old before your time. I’m old, -er, older, let’s say it that way. I’m older, but my mind isn’t old. My mind is open, my mind is always active.”


Kelly Levasque

Assistant principal, Woodway Elementary

Kelly Levasque believes she was always “designed for education,” but she wasn’t sure what that would look like. Her most influential teachers came at a time in her life when she was already working as one.

Levasque recalled spending time after school in the elementary library helping her mom who was — and still is — an elementary school librarian. As she grew older, sports played a bigger role in her life, and she considered careers in coaching or sports medicine. But it was during her final semester as an undergraduate at Baylor, playing softball and volunteering as an assistant with the team, that she realized what she needed to do.

“God has a way of showing us exactly his path,” she said. “And as much as I loved softball and sports, my love for kids and education grew stronger.”

Her most influential teachers came into her life around 2005 after she earned her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and began teaching third grade at Rapoport Academy. She credits fourth grade teachers Jennifer Whitlark and Crystal Robinson for helping shape her.

“Their wisdom and guidance helped me to become the teacher I am, and I have made a lifelong friendship with them through the process,” she said.

They taught her the importance of relationships and collaboration.

“As an assistant principal now, it is a design that I make sure other teachers have on a daily basis,” she said. “You really can’t do this job by yourself.”


Ashley Bridgewater

College readiness and coach, Waco High School

Ashley Bridgewater didn’t set out to be a teacher until her life took some unexpected turns. During her sophomore year at Howard University in Washington D.C., her mother died. At the age of 22, Bridgewater came home to Waco to raise her two younger brothers.

As she finished her bachelor’s degree at Baylor, she began teaching. Those around her quickly realized she had a gift. Though many teachers helped her over the years, the one who made the biggest impact was her kindergarten teacher at South Waco Elementary, Lisa Ward.

Two years ago, they reunited on stage at the Waco ISD Teacher of the Year award ceremony. Ward still teaches at South Waco, and Bridgewater was recognized for her work at George Washington Carver Middle School.

“She was like a second mother to us, which is important at that grade level,” Bridgewater said. “She was a caregiver as well as an educator.”

Bridgewater teaches Advancement Via Individual Determination, a college readiness prep course, and serves as an assistant coach for volleyball and track at Waco High. She works to ensure all her students are learning and growing in a positive way.

“I’m all about making progress,” she said. “They don’t have to be the best student. So as long as they are making [progress], we celebrate that because that’s important.”


Heather Keahey

Third grade math, science and religion, St. Louis Catholic School

Heather Keahey was born and raised in Waco. She graduated from Midway High School and said the number of amazing teachers to choose from was nearly overwhelming, but one stood out for her.

“Someone I think of fondly is Mrs. Skeen, who taught first grade at Hewitt Elementary,” Keahey said. “She had a really sweet approach to us, loved us and was supportive of us and was happy to see us every day. She was like our second mom.”

It’s the memory of that teacher that has guided Keahey in her work with her elementary students. “I’ve learned that sometimes a hug can heal a lot of things,” she said. “I try to be just a positive influence in their life. I want them to look forward to coming to school.”

When the position at St. Louis came open, Keahey jumped at the opportunity. Her own children already attended the school, and she said it has been a tremendous blessing.

“It’s a small school so I only have 14 in one class,” she said. “It allows me to spend more time with individual students and work with them in different ways.”
Her children have also had an influence on her approach as an educator.

“I have a son who has [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] so I know that his learning style is different than mine, and actually I’ve found that no two kids are going to learn the exact same way,” she said. “So you can’t teach the same way and expect everyone to get it.”