Lisa Picou doesn't give up. It's just not in her vocabulary.
Lisa Picou doesn't give up. It's just not in her vocabulary. And it's a large part of why she makes so much of herself available to her students.
"I tell them, 'I'm here for you 110 percent and I expect you to give me 110 percent,'" she said.
That level of commitment translates to not just the classroom when she's expected to be there - as the fifth grade math teacher at Buckeye Valley Middle School in northern Delaware County - but also when she's not expected to be there. According to the statement that her principal, Jason Spencer, submitted earlier this year when he nominated her for Columbus Parent's Teachers of the Year competition: "I knew she was special when students from other grades…started coming to her voluntarily during lunch for extra math help. She made it so fun to learn math that kids were spreading the word to other kids."
Soon after starting the lunch sessions, Spencer said Picou added after-school sessions and, wrote Spencer, "Parents call me asking if Mrs. Picou will work with their child."
Picou, a native of Perrysburg, Ohio, and now a resident of Bucyrus, has only been working at Buckeye Valley since last fall and this is her 15th year in education. But she almost didn't become a teacher. Despite starting college a year early and wanting to become a teacher, she was talked out of it, convinced by well-meaning adults that it wasn't a good career path for a bright young woman.
She eventually got her degree in respiratory therapy and worked in that field for 17 years. But one day - she called it "an enlightening moment" - she realized what she wanted most was to teach. So she went back to school, at The Ohio State University, and got a master's degree in education. She worked in the Galion, then Crestline, then Cardington districts before a fellow teacher convinced her to apply for an open position in Buckeye Valley.
"At first I wasn't sure I would connect with the kids," Picou said, "but within the first month, we had formed mutual respond and bonds, and I was having fun teaching."
It's a first year that nearly didn't come to completion. "On Nov. 18," said Picou, "I had my car accident."
She lives a 30-minute drive from Buckeye Valley and takes State Route 98.
"I hit black ice and lost control," she recounted. "They Life-Flighted me to Columbus."
Picou was treated for a severe concussion and lacerations. Despite all that and what Spencer described as "major black eyes" in his nominating statement, she returned to work a week later. And though she still, half a year later, struggles with headaches, she doesn't regret pushing herself to get back to the classroom so soon.
"My mind was in the classroom with the kids," she said.
That kind of perseverance and concern for her students' needs comes from a very personal place. She and her husband Joel lost a son, Joshua, in 2003 when he was just 14. He had been the surviving twin of a brother who died in-utero and Joshua had lived his short lifetime with severe developmental disabilities. But in that time, he brought so much joy to his family, which includes his brothers Caleb (now 24), Zachary (21) and Tyler (18), and he continues to provide his mother with inspiration.
"That's where my passion comes from," Picou said. "I really know that every kid can learn, so I just make myself available."
In addition to the lunchtime tutoring, she inaugurated twice-weekly afterschool sessions, which even welcomes high-school students (Buckeye Valley's high school and middle school are situated next to each other).
"They even wanted to do one on the last day of school," Picou said, "so we did."
Picou marvels at what's expected of students today.
"I'm teaching math (to fifth graders) that I learned in the 7th and 8th grades," Picou said.
She also welcomes the shift to problem-based learning and is excited about a project she's developing for the upcoming school year that will focus on hunger in the students' community. It will start with studying favorite Thanksgiving recipes for the math inherent in their writing and performing nutritional and cost analyses, before progressing to practical considerations in feeding the hungry and homeless. The project would culminate with the students presenting their findings to a panel of experts and the menu deemed best for nutrition and cost will be made to feed people in the community.
"I have always done projects with my students," she said, "but with this I hope to take it to an entirely different level."
And as Picou looks ahead to the future, she is also mindful of the past and how far she has come. What would she say to herself or any other teacher in their first year?
"A lesson plan does not need to be and most likely never will be 'perfect,'" Picou wrote in an email. "As teachers we are constantly reflecting and revising our instruction to meet the needs of all of our students. The most important thing is that the lesson is authentic and differentiated to the needs of each and every student. Adjustments can be made and reteaching will occur. In the end, what is most important is that you have captured your audience and actively engaged them in the learning process."
Editor's Note: After our August issue had gone to print, but before we published the content online, we received an email from Picou who wanted to share the following. We felt these stories and her advice are well worth sharing with parents:
"After we spoke, I received an email notification that one of my students had posted a comment of Edmodo [a website where students, parents and teachers in a school can connect].I was surprised as it was summer break.A student had posted that he missed math!The student in question was a quiet young man, who, before my accident, never would talk with me unless called upon and frequently struggled with homework completion.However, when I returned with my face still healing from the fractures, he brought me a gift and told me how he was worried I wasn't coming back.From that point on, he would come to my room during lunch for help with homework and often would talk about football with me as our favorite teams were rivals.This connection opened a door to learning that, until that point, I had struggled to get through with him.This was a child that could have easily remained under the radar, never achieving his true potential, had I given up on communicating and/or reaching him.
Another student lost his mother to pancreatic cancer on July 11th.She was only 35 years old.This young man started the school year strong.However, around the end of the second nine weeks, I noticed he appeared tired, unusually quiet, and began needing to come to my room during lunch to complete homework.We had several discussions but he never shared what he was dealing with at the time.It wasn't until I told him I had tried to call home to let his mother know he was receiving a "Positive Referral" award but could not get an answer that he spoke the sentence that I will never forget.He said, 'She is probably sleeping because the chemo makes her really tired.' My heart sank! This had been going on for a few months and not one person at school knew about it. After talking with the father, I found out she had pancreatic cancer and had been in and out of the hospital.The father asked that I share what I had learned with administration and the other teachers as he had not had the chance to call.
As I hung up the phone, my heart was heavy but my eyes were opened.It was evident then more than ever,how crucial it is that we, as teachers, take the time to develop a strong rapport with our students. We need to understand that for every action there is a reaction.Our students will react to whatever is happening in their lives.The reaction may be very subtle but that is why we need to be vigilant.We need to look beyond the behavior for the cause and provide support that will foster learning and growth.This is crucial as behavior and attitude can prove to be major obstacles to learning and life in general."