By Mindy Ragan Wood, Staff Writer – Veteran fourth grade teacher Kim Payne brings her experiences as an educator and the scars she bears as a former struggling student to the classroom.
Payne teaches English language arts and social studies at Independence Elementary where she taught math and science two years ago.
“What I like most about teaching is that challenge of turning a child into a lifelong learner. I want them to enjoy reading as much as I do and know the importance of it. I want to have them travel the world even if it’s just from their armchair in a book. I want them to because I didn’t feel successful in school to taste that success,” she said.
Payne’s family moved frequently when she was a young student and math was a struggling subject to conquer. Adding to her discomfort in school, she was shy and found that teachers did not listen to her need to learn in a different way.
“Math didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “I was very shy, so when the teacher would call me on me, even when I knew the right answer the wrong one would come out. I would get so flustered. In math I just felt completely illiterate. At a young age I knew what could help me, but my teachers and even my mom told me ‘you don’t need that.’ I can remember telling them, ‘I can remember the steps to long division if you would just let me write on an index card step one do this, step two do that.’ They told me that I just needed to pay attention or work harder.’”
Payne eventually mastered math when she was allowed to explore it in a way that made sense to her and when it clicked, her passion for teaching was ignited.
“I remembered thinking math was like a foreign language,” she recalled. “When I finally understood it, in what I called math land, I started to enjoy it. I taught my students about ‘math land’ with a cool wizard who tried to outsmart everyone else. That’s the reason I taught math so well because I understood where their misconception was coming from.”
The trials of her early learning days are not the only experiences she brings to the classroom. From 2005 to 2012, Payne taught at an inner-city school she helped open in Phoenix, Arizona. With 1,000 students and not enough teachers, her classroom size was 36 students to one teacher.
The burden of teaching so many students may not have compared to the difficulty in managing a room full of children whose homes were troubled. The “mother at heart” teacher had to learn to be tough and make hard decisions that fit each child, including one youngster who attacked her.
“My first year there a fifth grader tried to head butt me,” she said. “I didn’t want to press charges. A teacher pulled me aside and told me that it was the same student who bit out a piece of a child’s cheek and threw chairs around the room and started a fight. I signed the police report.”
When the mother of the student asked to see her the next day, she was ready for a difficult conversation.
“She said ‘I kept telling people he was trouble and he was nothing but trouble and nobody would do anything,’ She thanked me for filing charges. There’s nothing so humbling than to be able to sit with a parent who can open up and put their trust in you and says, ‘I’m at my wits end’ and they’re trusting you with their fragile self. You’re part of the children’s life and the two of you cry and share a box of Kleenex. It hones in that saying that goes, ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ You brought this child into the world but we’re all on this planet to raise them.”
From that volatile environment, Payne came to Yukon to be near family and found it was almost culture shock.
“Just last year I felt like my chest untightened because I felt like I was in PTDS mode. There it was flying by the seat of your pants and putting out fires,” she said. “My favorite show was the Andy Griffith Show. In Mayberry everybody helped everyone else. Yukon is kind of like that.”
Teachers help each other. Fourth grade teachers collaborate on teaching goals and connect all subjects through a project. Each year fellow teachers have their students construct a monster around the theme of a story. Frankenstein becomes a math, science, history, and literature project as they read the story and make up their own creature.
It isn’t only teachers who make up a “Mayberry” culture. A couple of years ago while shopping at Target for discounted supplies, Payne said a woman in line behind her handed her $20.
“She said, “You’re not my child’s teacher but my child is in your pod (area) and I want to help you do this.’ I started crying and I thought, ‘I’m in an alternate universe. But that’s how most of the parents are and how they treat teachers in Yukon. You feel respected as a teacher in Yukon. Coming from Phoenix you were just expected to do your job because that’s your job.”
For Payne, teaching is more than a job. It’s a calling that runs in her family. Her son, Brian Payne, is the Yukon High School art and art history teacher. Her father is a professor and her grandmother was an art teacher.