Krista Hyme comes from a long line of teachers.
Krista Hyme comes from a long line of teachers.
"My grandfather taught in a one-room schoolhouse," said the winner of Columbus Parent's Teacher of the Year award in the elementary-school division. The Lancaster, Ohio, native also grew up in a family and community that were defined by agriculture and animals: Another grandfather even owned a John Deere dealership.
Consequently a teaching career that draws heavily upon the influence and inspiration of animals makes perfect sense for her.
"Animals have just always been a huge part of my life," she said, "and gradually I started to weave that into what I do in the classroom."
For the last eight years, Hyme, who just completed her 20th year in education, has taught at Johnnycake Corners Elementary in the Olentangy district. There she has pioneered a number of unique programs, including one that brings therapy dogs to the school to help children learn better reading skills; another that uses dog-agility training to help children develop confidence in their own problem-solving and speaking skills; and yet another that has 5- and 6-year-olds raising money through service projects for Rwandan education and conservation projects.
In addition to these in-school efforts, Hyme volunteers with the Franklin County Dog Shelter, the Capital Area Humane Society and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
The price of so much creative problem-solving in the classroom is that it does indeed have a price. More often than not, Hyme said she turns to fundraising to pay for these projects and she has been fortunate to enjoy the support of her school's families, fellow staff members and, in particular, her principal Cindy DeAngelis.
"Cindy really does embrace people for who they are," Hyme said. "She was the one who came to me after reading an article about reading-recovery therapy dogs and asked me if we could do this in our building."
That kind of outside-of-the-box thinking plays heavily into Hyme's teaching philosophy.
"I had an aunt who also taught and she told me, 'Don't always feel like you have to play it by the book,'" Hyme said. "I've learned you have to know yourself and your students and let your personality shape your classroom."
Hyme explained that bringing animals into a school building is not without serious logistical challenges.
"We thought very long and hard about how to do this," Hyme said, acknowledging that allergies and animal-behavior risks have been considered carefully in designing both the Reading Recovery and Agility Ability programs that have therapy dogs visiting Johnnycake Corners Elementary School.
"There are all certified and trained therapy dogs, and they're also insured," Hyme explained. "We have a very strict protocol with the handlers and use blankets for the dogs to be seated on when they're in the classroom."
Even the issue of animals who might have consumed treats made with nuts or produced in plants where nut products are present are considered.
"We have had no adverse reactions," Hyme said.
Happily, some of Hyme's prizes for winning the Teacher of the Year competition - specifically the $250 cash prize from KEMBA Financial Credit Union - will help finance the Agility Ability program for the 2015-16 school year.
"Usually we're able to do a fundraiser, but this past year we just weren't able to because of the testing going on," Hyme said. "This comes at a great time."
She's a firm believer that the animals can help children unlock their potential.
"The reading-dog program initially targeted, not necessarily struggling readers, but maybe what we'd call reluctant readers," Hyme said. "Maybe they lack confidence reading in front of the peers or they're not getting enough practice reading at home."
Reading to another living creature - a warm and furry creature who snuggles up to attention - reduces the tension and boundaries that can make it difficult for some children to read confidently out loud.
Likewise, she explained, the Agility Ability program initially targeted children on the autism spectrum, but has since expanded to include children from what might be called the "general ed" rather than the "special ed" track.
"Again, we're finding it helps with children where there might be fine-motor skill issues, or speech or communication issues, or just confidence," Hyme said. "For example, some teachers will recommend a student who's afraid to speak in front of the class. The process of issuing verbal commands to a dog who follows instructions helps reduce that anxiety."
She recalled one little girl who had tremendous problems connecting socially with her peers.
"Her teachers would see her collapse on the dog, just so happy to see it, and just make that connection when she struggles to connect with her peer population," Hyme said. "That's when you know it's working."