Washington County teacher named a finalist for nation’s highest honor for STEM teachers

ST. GEORGE — On Monday, Kristie Rindlisbacher, a first grade teacher at Crimson View Elementary, was named one of six finalists for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. This award is rated as the nation’s highest honor for STEM teachers.

Kristie Rindlisbacher (pictured in second from the left in the front row) is named a finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Kristie Rindlisbacher, St. George News

Adam Baker, principal of Crimson View Elementary, told St. George News that he chose to nominate Rindlisbacher for the award because she exemplifies excellence in science instruction, as her love for science allows her to “bring it alive” for kids.

As someone who has been an administrator at various places, Baker said it’s often the case that there is minimal time put into science instruction when it comes to first grade.

“There’s just so much reading and math that the teachers are worried about,” he said. “But Kristie is able to incorporate science in and make it an integral part of her curriculum.”

He said she is also passionate about teaching and wants for it to be recognized as a profession and not just “babysitting kids.”

“She wants people to know that what she’s doing matters,” he said. “She challenges kids. She pushes these little 6- and 7-year-olds to achieve great things.”

Students of Kristie Rindlisbacher work on projects with Utah State Board of Education Superintendent Sydnee Dickson, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Kristie Rindlisbacher, St. George News

In addition to her work inside the classroom, he said Rindlisbacher also organized a teacher conference for teachers in the district, where they had about 150 educators in attendance.

“Kristie was kind of the spearhead, the brains behind it, the one who made it happen,” he said.

In her 13th year of teaching, Rindlisbacher told St. George News that she never envisioned herself as a first-grade teacher because she always felt that her personality was more attuned to fourth or fifth graders. But she said she’s found that it’s exactly where she is supposed to be — even if the kids don’t always catch her sense of humor.

“Sometimes I say a joke and it falls flat, and I’m like, ‘OK, yep, that was mostly for me,'” she said.

All jokes aside, and aside from plenty of stories about chairs and scissors being thrown or kids “punching me in the head,” Rindlisbacher said the hardest part of her job is trying to teach students whose basic needs aren’t being met.

“Because maybe they have low-income or maybe they didn’t eat breakfast, or maybe they don’t have the proper care or parent support,” she said. “It spills over into the classroom, unfortunately.”

Despite these challenges, Rindlisbacher said her teaching philosophy is grounded in a belief that all kids can learn and excel.

A students of Kristie Rindlisbacher works on a project, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Kristie Rindlisbacher, St. George News

“You need to meet kids where they are and lift them from whatever knowledge they currently have,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that all kids can and will rise to your expectations.”

Just because a student has a weakness in one area, such as reading, doesn’t mean that they won’t excel at science or math, she added. She also creates “inquiry-based” lesson plans rooted in student questions that integrate content.

“I don’t teach a concept in isolation. If we’re learning about patterns in math, we tie it into coding, and then we tie it into animals that move in a pattern.”

One of the key elements for engaging young kids in science and engineering is in making sure they understand the real-world connection and why it matters, she said.

In winning this award she said she was flattered and had nearly forgotten about it amid the abnormal conditions of this year’s school year. She was nominated in March just before the schools were shut down, at which point she began receiving continuous calls from parents in need of guidance to facilitate remote learning for their kids.

We kind of became the heroes in the spring. It was a different shift in the fall. People were like, ‘Yeah, it’s time for them (teachers) to get back to work.’ Initially it was really hard with the masks. Mostly because the parents didn’t quite know where they were — some were on board, some were mad — and it’s hard because as an educator, you don’t get to express your own feelings about it. You just have to do what’s required.

Trying to fill in the academic gaps the occurred due to the March shutdown and getting kids where they need to be has also been a challenge, especially as the academic gaps are compounded by the increase in student absences due to quarantine and the expectations haven’t changed.

“Yet I still have the same expectations placed on me as a teacher to make sure we’ve now filled in the holes, and we’ve got them on grade level,” she said. “Most of my colleagues feel the same.”

“Teachers are tired, and trying to do all the things and more has been hard to keep up even with our own emotional health concerns.”

Looking back, if she could offer one bit of advice to herself when she was in her first year teaching, she said it would be letting go of the idea of needing to be perfect in all subjects all at once and not being afraid to ask her peers for guidance.

“Just realizing that nobody expects perfection.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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