Two Lutheran teachers have spent the past 25 years helping the youngest of students build a strong educational foundation.
But more important to Stacy Wright and Ruth Southerland is teaching kindergartners at Zion Lutheran School about God’s Word and love.
Both teachers recently were recognized for their service to Christian education by the Indiana District — Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
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Wright began her career in education after graduating from Concordia University in 1994. That August, she started teaching at Zion.
During her second year, she transferred to St. John’s Lutheran School Sauers, helping to start the kindergarten program there, but later on ended up going back to Zion.
Teaching seemed like a logical career choice for Wright because her father was a teacher.
“He was my mentor and inspiration,” she said. “I followed what he was doing, and it seemed like he enjoyed it, and that’s what led me to it.”
From a young age, Wright knew she wanted to be a teacher, and she never changed that goal as she got older.
“I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to go into Lutheran teaching, I just knew I was going to teach,” she said.
But that path solidified as she got into middle school.
“The teachers I had, they inspired me to want to go into Lutheran teaching, and that’s why I went on to Concordia,” she said.
Being a teacher is rewarding for many reasons, but the children are what make it worth going to work each and every day, she said.
“I enjoy seeing the children, especially the younger kids because you get to see the excitement on their faces just from some of the smaller things that we take for granted learning,” she said.
She also appreciates that being in a parochial school, she gets to guide children spiritually.
“We get to talk about Jesus, and they remember the Bible stories, and they’re excited about different aspects related to that,” she said.
For the 2020-21 school year, Wright will take on more responsibilities as she has accepted the call to serve as a part-time principal at Zion while still remaining a kindergarten teacher.
She said she feels comfortable with the administrative position because in the past, she helped former St. John’s Principal Sharon Rohr, who was a full-time principal while also being a full-time teacher. Wright also has served as interim principal at Zion for half a year after she came back from teaching at St. John’s.
This year has been a strange year for all teachers as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools in March and forced students to finish the school year through other methods, including online lessons.
“I miss my students,” she said. “It’s hard for the younger grades to get eLearning in.”
Because kindergarten sets the foundation for a child’s educational future, it’s vital for them to experience it in the classroom, she added.
“You want to make sure they are on track because kindergarten is their first full year of school,” Wright said. “They need to want to go to school and to like school and to learn some of the basic things they need before going on to first grade.”
Although the kids are the big reason she loves being a teacher, she also said it is fulfilling to be able to serve her Lord at the same time.
She also likes the challenge of teaching because every year and every student is different, she said.
“You’re not going to teach the same way every single year,” she said. “It’s exciting to know you’ve accomplished the goals children need and have.”
She thanks the faculty and staff at Zion for making her teaching experience so successful and enjoyable.
“It’s good to talk to each other and communicate with teachers across the United States because you are always looking for new ideas to try different things in the classroom,” she said.
Southerland, who is from Seymour, began her teaching career in the late ’90s. She worked at Open Arms Daycare in Tucson, Arizona, teaching kindergarten.
Not only has she taught at Zion for 25 years, but she was even a student there, too.
“I was in their first class,” she said. “It’s amazing how God made all of that work.”
After graduating from Immanuel Lutheran School and Seymour High School, she attended Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Although she currently teaches kindergarten, she also has served as a preschool teacher at Zion, teaching 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds.
“I just love the children and how they respond when they learn something new, that ah-ha moment,” she said.
Some of her favorite activities with her students include reading to them and teaching them science, she said.
“I’ve enjoyed so many good things with them,” she said.
Now that she has been there as long as she has, some of the school’s employees are former students, she said.
“It’s so neat to see them all grown up,” she said.
When Southerland was young, she went to a babysitter and often would bring crafts for her and the other children to do. She also said being in Girl Scouts played a role in her decision to become a teacher.
“It made me want to be the leader,” she said.
Southerland said her goal as a teacher always has been to provide a safe and fun environment for her students where they can learn to love school.
Being a teacher is a special job, but even more so being at a Lutheran school, she added.
“You get to hear God’s Word every day,” she said. “We pray with them, and I don’t think that’s something they get at public school. You just have God’s Word surrounding you.”
When school closed in March because of the pandemic, Southerland said it made her sad because she didn’t get to see her students daily.
“Everything just stopped,” she said. “You had to drop everything and rework plans so they could take them home and teach the parents a little bit through our lessons that we got to send home through learning packets.”
It may not have been an ideal way to teach, but she hopes it still worked.
But the at-home learning couldn’t take the place of the excitement the students had for activities like the Jungle Gymboree.
“It’s sad that we don’t get to have that closure,” she said. “I miss them getting to do fun things like that, and I miss their smiles and their hugs.”
Southerland will not be returning to Zion this coming school year as she explores other opportunities.
“I’m just seeing where else my teaching can take me,” she said. “I would like to lead in other ways, and I feel blessed to be able to do that.”