By Kelly Hagen, NDU Communications

Kindergarten teacher Heather Tomlin-Rohr is often the first teacher in her students’ lives. She doesn’t take that responsibility lightly.

North Dakota Teacher of the Year finalist Heather Tomlin-Rohr is a kindergarten teacher at Louis L’Amour Elementary School in Jamestown.

“Kindergarten is such a unique grade,” Tomlin-Rohr said. “You have some kids coming in that maybe have preschool experience, and you have those kids who had no school experience. The goal is, by the end of the year, how can we get them ready to be successful for first grade? Kindergarten is that unique opportunity where we get to teach them what school is about. Some kindergarten classrooms have taken the play out of kindergarten. But I feel that my co-workers here in Jamestown and I, we’ve figured out how to keep the play in kindergarten and still have academics and let the children have success.”

Tomlin-Rohr, a 14-year teacher at Louis L’Amour Elementary School in Jamestown and member of North Dakota United, was one of five finalists for the 2018 Teacher of the Year award.

“I’m so honored to be one of the five,” she said. “There are so many wonderful teachers and educators across our state. And I feel blessed that I’m one of the finalists. It’s really a humbling experience. The whole interview process, I think that’s such an eye opener to me. You really reflect on where have you come as a teacher and how you have grown and changed as a professional over the years.”

From left, Gov. Doug Burgum, Teacher of the Year finalist Heather Tomlin-Rohr and Superintendent Kirsten Baesler stand together outside of Fargo South High School.

Tomlin-Rohr grew up outside of Jamestown, on a small-grain farm. She said she worked on her family’s farm while growing up, and this instilled a strong work ethic in her. “You work hard on the farm, and you don’t ever get to get tired,” she said, with a smile. “You’ve just got to keep going.”

She said she was inspired to teach by her grandmother, who taught in a small, rural school on the prairie. “She would tell me all the stories of having a class in a one-room schoolhouse, and the challenges with the different age levels,” Tomlin-Rohr said. “But she found it so rewarding. And it just made me want to pursue education.”

She got involved in education by teaching Sunday school at her church, and teaching farm safety through Future Farmers of America (FFA). She received her degree in early childhood and elementary education from the University of Jamestown. And was hired at Louis L’Amour in 2002 as a kindergarten teacher.

“I always thought I wanted to teach first grade, and I’m like, well, kindergarten can’t be that different than first grade,” she said. “So that was a big eye opener. It’s a lot different, and I love it. I’m so blessed, and I’m thankful that that was the opportunity I got. I’ve been in kindergarten for 16 years, and it’s been fantastic.”

Tomlin-Rohr is a two-time finalist for Teacher of the Year, this year and in 2015, primarily because of her innovative approach to teaching and learning, through the application of technology and muscle movement.

“My favorite one I’d want to talk about is Brain Boost Up,” she said. “A few years ago, a colleague of mine, Sandy Strom, and I attended the Minnesota state kindergarten conference, and a gal there was showing stations that she has her kids run through and the brain research of doing these different activities. For example, jumping on a rebounder — which is a trampoline but we call it a rebounder — while reading your letters or your sight words from the bottom up, because then it’s putting in your long-term memory. Sandy and I came back to Jamestown and we contacted the company, A Chance to Learn and Grow, and we ordered their manuals and we just kind of jumped into it ourselves. We’ve been doing this now for four years.”

Heather Tomlin-Rohr helps her student learn about animals with an augmented-reality program in her kindergarten class at Louis L’Amour Elementary School in Jamestown, N.D.

Tomlin-Rohr’s students go through different stations in her room, combining movement and learning. “The first thing we do in the morning is our Brain Boost Up stations,” she said. “So they may be jumping on rebounders, reading our sight words from the bottom up. They may be using the Stick Scotch here on the carpet, going through, twisting their bodies different ways because we’re trying to build those dendrite connections in their brain that they still at their age have the ability to build, and getting those connections to connect. Other things that we do are some vision-training activities. They’re tracing a pathway, like a color wheel, with their fingers. Another station that we’re doing is something called Alligator Crawl. They’re down on the ground, crawling on my mat, like an alligator. And they’re slapping words as they’re crawling.”

She said the results of her Brain Boost Up program have been amazing. “I’ve seen the academic gains,” she said. “My test scores have just improved continuously. And they love coming into the class. You know those kids that used to be hesitant, like they’re not sure if they want to come this morning, or they’re missing their moms and dads? Now with this program, they can’t wait to get in here.”