Tag Archives: teacher

Joan Standifer

December 22, 2017 by
Photography by Heather and Jameson Hooton

These autobiographical pieces and corresponding photos are part of a special edition of 60PLUS featuring local residents who prove that fashion has no age limits.


Joan Standifer, 75

I’m a fabulous, 75-year-young woman with an attitude that embraces the joy of living.

I’m an Omaha native who raised two now-adult children: Michael, who lives in Omaha, and Monica Baker, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. My legacy continues with granddaughter, Micka, and 8-month-old great-granddaughter, Zaina. I am married to the marvelous love of my life, Stanley Standifer, and enjoy a blended family with his four children and seven grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.

My college education culminated with a master’s degree from the University of Nebraska-Omaha in education administration. Over a 30-year span, I held several positions with Omaha Public Schools, retiring as an elementary principal.

Many years of my life were spent as an advocate of social equality and quality education. I consider myself a cultural navigator, dedicated to lifelong learning and discovery of the world and its people. This philosophy has been reinforced by my travels to 75 percent of the world, and in serving on civic, social, and education boards. As a UNO-sponsored Fulbright Scholarship recipient, I traveled to Pakistan, met world leaders, and shared these experiences in presentations. Many honors and awards have been extended to me as a result of sharing my experiences.

Happiness is knowing that my life has been a beacon for my former students and members of my family. It’s rewarding to know that a former fifth-grade student of mine, to this day, regards me as the “greatest teacher ever.” I relish the fact that at this age, I continue to make a difference in the lives of those around me.

Let your light shine so that others can walk in your path toward success in life. Let others discover their value and be willing to share of themselves for the greater good. Be honest and unpretentious in your relationships. Aging becomes less of a factor when you live by faith and have respect for mankind.

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Kim Darling

December 27, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha-based artist Kim Darling (also known as Kim Reid Kuhn) is relishing a moment of “when one door closes, another opens.”

Darling, a prominent Benson First Friday contributor known for curating provocative exhibitions and performances at Sweatshop Gallery—and arguably one of the reasons why Benson’s aura is what it is today—is now applying her passion for community arts advocacy in new ways.

“Sweatshop Gallery was always a launching point for larger social ideas,” she says.

Since the gallery’s closing in October 2015, Darling has accepted four artist residencies at four different Omaha schools. She has collaborated on two projects, Swale and Wetland, with former Bemis Center artist Mary Mattingly. Those “socially engaged projects” were both featured in The New York Times, Art Forum, and ART 21.

Darling is many things to many people: community activist, curator, mother, teacher, advocate, tastemaker, and artist. It is within their nexus that she has found new momentum—namely, public and socially engaged projects that define and build community through art with artists.

Recent iterations include exhibitions and subsequent public programming at both The Union for Contemporary Art and the Michael Phipps Gallery at the Omaha Public Library. Darling presented her paintings and photographs in a gallery setting that later set the backdrop for public conversations around topics of police brutality, definitions of “public-ness,” and how race, gender, and socio-economic realities frame perceptions of place.

Yet despite a very public persona, her zeal for her own private painting practice is on fire.

Darling’s iconography is distinct. With a distilled color pallet of coal black, turquoise, dirty white, and cotton candy pink, her canvases are peppered with oddly familiar shapes and punk references.

Her aptly named “Rat’s Nest Studio” is nearly at capacity with in-progress paintings and sketches of future projects—each influencing the other. It is in her studio where the visible traces of a focused artist are on display. In the duality of social engagement and private studio making, inspiration is constant. For Darling, “these different perspectives feed me, helping keep my marks and ideas raw.”

There is no mistaking Darling’s passion. Navigating a newly trodden path of community building through arts advocacy can be complicated, but for Darling, “there is a simple power in art making and storytelling.” This is where her art and life meet—an intersection of public discourse and art with an emphasis on communal and social concerns.

With Darling’s ongoing efforts, this new chapter will continue to be a revolving door for opportunity, inspiration, and evolution.

Visit kimdarling.net for more information.

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At the Heart of St. Matthew

November 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“When I see a student no longer having to struggle to read or do a math problem—that is why I teach. They take so much pride in them-selves when they become independent in their thinking.”

-Lisa Benson

As a young Girl Scout in Texas, a lightbulb went off when Lisa Benson’s troop adopted a special needs class during her middle school years. She knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. That connection to those students made her realize that her future place in life was in a classroom. She held on to that joy of helping others when she attended Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and majored in elementary education. She dedicated her education further by continuing on for her master’s degree in literacy from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Now, at 58 years old and with over 20 years of teaching experience, Lisa Benson was recently honored as one of the Educators of the Year in the elementary category by the Archdiocese of Omaha at the Archbishop’s Dinner for Education on Sept. 29, 2016.

Nominated by the principal, staff, and community of St. Matthew Catholic School, where she has taught first grade for the past 14 years, Benson was just as shocked as she was thrilled to receive the award: “I was so surprised. I feel I have always given my best to St. Matthew School, my students, and their families. It is such an honor to be recognized for hard work and dedication. I truly appreciate all the support from the archdiocese, my fellow teachers, and the families at St. Matthew.”

It’s that heart and dedication that is exactly why she was nominated, according to school principal Jim Daro, who has worked with her during the four years he’s been at St. Matthew.

“Mrs. Benson is an outstanding teacher,” Daro says. “She cares deeply for her students and their progress in and out of her classroom. She maintains a classroom environment where students are cared for and comfortable; they know they are there to learn. They respect her just as much as she respects them.”

As a mother of three grown children, Benson loves cultivating independence in not only her own children but those she teaches every day in the first grade classroom. “At this age, they love learning,” she says. “So all I have to do is present it to them, and they soak it up. When I see a student no longer having to struggle to read or do a math problem—that is why I teach. They take so much pride in themselves when they become independent in their thinking.”

But teaching hasn’t always come easy to Benson. She didn’t start her teaching career until after raising her children. At the start of working at St. Matthew, she felt behind in the field of education. “Things had changed since I graduated from college. This struggle has made me aware of how my students, or even a new staff member, may feel when a concept isn’t clear to them.”

That empathy is what led her to become like a support system to many other teachers at the school. Daro raves about Benson’s ability to help others, “She is a mentor and a leader with the rest of the faculty. She is highly involved in our school and community beyond the classroom. Mrs. Benson is involved with our school board, our development team, and our school improvement team.”

As for what Benson will do with the $5,000 award prize from her prestigious Educator of the Year recognition: “My husband and I are still figuring that out. Maybe a trip!”

And with all the hard work, time, and heart Benson puts into each day of teaching, a trip is definitely a great way to celebrate her dedication to the St. Matthew students and educational community.

Visit stmatthewbellevuene.net for more information.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.

What Should I Get Out of a Parent-Teacher Conference?

January 27, 2014 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Spring semester parent-teacher conferences are coming up soon, but parents wanting to maximize their return on these quick meetings with their kids’ teachers might want to start a few habits now.

Don’t expect to solve major problems in five minutes

Anna Rempel, a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher at Conestoga Public Schools, says she tries to keep individual meetings between five and seven minutes long. Josephine Langbehn, a seventh-grade art educator at Omaha Public School’s Monroe Middle School, says her meetings may average ten minutes.

Serious problems, like acting out in the classroom or demonstrating a need for special education testing, aren’t tackled here. “If a student is struggling, I’ve already e-mailed a parent about it,” Rempel says, adding that school counselors and the principal would handle those concerns.

Parent-teacher conferences, on the other hand, are more along the lines of checkups. Expect to be handed a grade report and discuss:

  • Test average
  • Homework average
  • Overall grade
  • Any missing homework
  • Suggestions for improvement

Take notes

Parents can receive a lot of information in very condensed form during conferences. Rempel says she offers pointers like homework organization or encouraging a student to check against a calculator. Langbehn will discuss more abstract skills, such as a student’s ability to navigate art criticism or form their own ideas about what makes good art.

Whatever the subject, jot down the teacher’s suggestions and refer to them the next time you help your child with homework.

A teacher may even offer insight directly from your child. A few days before conferences, Rempel has her students write three sentences on their own grade reports. “I have sentence starters for them to choose from: I’m doing awesome at blank, I’m not really understanding blank, I participate by blank.” That way parents can hear in a student’s own words what’s going on in class.

Ask how to take grades to the next level

If maintaining a specific grade point is important to you and your child, ask for specifics: “If my child has a B and I want them to have an A, what else could they do?” Paying attention to grades posted online is another way to monitor progress, Rempel says, and note any warning signs in particular subjects.

For improving on concepts like creatively solving for solutions, Langbehn suggests asking the teacher for more self-guided goals and projects to pursue outside the classroom. “That is a life skill now. You have to be able to think creatively.”

Be proactive with your communication

If you or the teacher mentioned concerns during your conference, Rempel strongly encourages contacting the teacher again in a few weeks. Langbehn adds that it’s important to find the best way to reach a particular teacher. “If we need to follow up, how will that happen?” she says. “I personally 
prefer e-mail.”

While Rempel encourages parents to attend at least the first conference of the year (you can usually expect one in fall and another in spring), she suggests sending an e-mail to a teacher if you’re not going to drop by.

“The important thing is that a parent and a teacher work together as a team,” Langbehn says. “It’s not just me telling a parent that your kid needs to do this.”

If all goes well, Rempel says parents can expect to hear, “They’re doing great. I appreciate your involvement in your child’s education, and if there are problems in the future, I will definitely contact you.”

Her 13 Cents Worth

January 6, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Though inching 
perilously close
 to senior citizen status, Robin Welch still moves with the grace and agility of a young prima ballerina, which of course she once was.

Welch came to the Midlands in 1985 as principal dancer for Ballet Omaha, continuing an upward trajectory in ballet that can only be described as meteoric. Previously, she had won a full scholarship at age 15 to train with the Harkness Ballet in New York City, where she was born. Her talents won her a permanent spot with the company and at 17 she jetted off to Monaco.

“Our company was based in Monte Carlo,” she recounts. “Princess Grace would invite us to the castle. We’d swim in their pool.”

The company danced all across Europe, where Welch met or performed with the greatest ballet legends of the era, including Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Yes, everything was beautiful—until Rebekah Harkness decided to close the company she had founded. Welch returned stateside to join the Connecticut Ballet. It was in New Haven in 1978 that a photo of her was taken and used on a postage stamp—worth a princely 13 cents—as part of the Postal Service’s USA Dance series.

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The call to Omaha actually came from her then-husband, artistic director Robert Vickrey, who brought his wife and their young daughter, Rachel, with him to develop Ballet Omaha. After Robert’s departure in the early ’90s (the couple had divorced by then), Ballet Omaha collapsed, and Welch retired as a dancer.

The curtain rose again in 1999 when The Rose Theater offered to house a new school and company, Omaha Ballet Theater, which Welch founded. After 11 years at the helm of Omaha’s only professional ballet company, she was stunned when The Rose decided to sever its ties.

“It was draining to see it disintegrate before my eyes,” says Welch of her ballet school.

But she was born to teach. Welch gathered her strength, her money, and her daughter—an accomplished ballet artist herself—and in 2010 opened Robin Welch Dance Arts, home of Heartland Youth Ballet. Welch’s gift of unfettered, joyous movement now shines in her 
young students.

“I have worked with children trained by Robin,” says Ernest Richardson, Resident Conductor of the Omaha Symphony. “They come consummately prepared. They’re disciplined, respectful, and they know how to work with the orchestra. She’s an 
amazing woman.”

Accolades from her peers sustained Welch after she thought her life’s work had ended. When the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards presented her with their Lifetime Achievement Award two years ago, she broke down in gratitude.

“I had felt isolated until that point,” she admits. “But [the award] made me feel like I was part of the community again. It came at a great time.”

With Heartland Youth Ballet now soaring, Welch’s story adds another en pointe chapter—this one with a happy ending.

The Big Shifts

August 16, 2013 by

Moving up a grade is one thing. Moving up to the next tier is entirely another.

The next tier, of course, is the shift between elementary school and middle school. Then, the jump from middle school to high school. Whole new worlds, whole new levels of responsibility for your child.

And the challenge for you, as the parent, is to keep up and know how to help your child navigate.

It’s bittersweet when that youngest child finishes their last year in elementary school. After all, it’s a small pond that your life has been built around for at least the last six years, perhaps longer. You know the teachers, where the classrooms are, which parents are the hardcore volunteers. You can plan ahead on how many bags of candy you’ll need to donate for Halloween. And what kinds of cupcakes pass the “no-peanuts” test.

Things change in middle school.

Generally, most Omaha-area kids make the shift after fifth grade. Some districts wait until sixth, but the changes are similar. The biggest one? Your student will have more than one or two teachers. They’ll have different teachers for every subject, plus the responsibility to move between classes quickly and efficiently.

They’ll probably have a locker for the first time—with a combination they’ll need to memorize. They’ll have to plan ahead for which books they’ll need for which class—because in some districts, children are no longer allowed to carry their backpacks during the day due to safety concerns. They’ll need to use their assignment books faithfully to keep track of what is due and when. They’ll have semester projects and far more opportunities for extracurricular activities. They’ll have their first school dance.

And getting involved as a parent isn’t quite the same. Middle-school teachers don’t rely on parent volunteers quite like elementary-school teachers do. Honestly, your 12-year-old probably doesn’t want you hanging around all the time anyway. Try not to take it personally. You’ll need to seek out those volunteer opportunities, but they are there. Most schools have some kind of parent-advisory team, and there are regular shout-outs during the school year for parents to help take tickets or chaperone events.

You’ll have to work a little harder to get to know your child’s teachers. After all, middle-school teachers have six or seven classes of students, not just one or two. But it really does matter that you show up for parent-teacher conferences and any other chance to support your student and get to know who is guiding your child’s education and social development. Teachers notice. And they may not admit it, but your child does, too. Middle school is hard. (Who would want to go back?) It’s when kids can start being really mean to each other—cliques form, bullying begins. It’s more important than ever for you to be supportive and accessible to your child.

Brace yourself. If middle school is a big change, high school is the Wild, Wild West.

But truthfully, by the time you reach high school, you are also parenting a teenager. While it might seem scary and a bit overwhelming when your children are small, when you actually get there, it falls into a natural progression. What the kids learn in middle school about time management, planning efficiency, and personal responsibility all come to bear when you start working out a high-school schedule.

In middle school, your kids will have a few electives they pick from. High school offers a whole smörgåsbord of options. In the Omaha area especially, students have a huge variety of choices on how to pursue their high-school education. Most kids will follow their middle-school friends to their district high school, but your family is not limited to that option. For example, Millard students who are interested in becoming teachers or accountants can apply for one of the special “academies” offering a career preparatory trajectory. Hundreds of teenagers attend parochial or private schools. A number of high schools offer the prestigious International Baccalaureate program. It really depends on your child and where his or her interests lie.

Once you’ve decided where your child is going to pursue his diploma, it continues to be important to keep open lines of communication with your student and his teachers. Make conferences a priority, keep an eye on your student’s workload and grades, and stay in touch with teachers and coaches as needed. Most schools list all staff contact information on their websites, and many teachers will tell you that’s the easiest way to reach them. Between games, concerts, and meetings, your student will likely have a lot going on, and it will be a challenge to keep up, but it is also exciting. You will start seeing glimpses of the adult that your child will one day become.

The hardest part for a parent? That stretch between the first day of kindergarten and the first day of high school feels like a blink of an eye. Relish every second. You can’t say “I’m proud of you, and I love you” too many times. And you can’t take too many pictures.

Teachers: The Good and The Bad

Teachers can make or break your school experience. They are there to help you increase your knowledge. This is not always the case. I have had a few teachers throughout my career that have been the opposite of what a good teacher should be and some that were amazing and have changed my life.

A few teachers were unpleasant and mean, and some would not even teach the class and had the students fend for themselves. Not all teachers are fit for their role. It’s hard to deal with these sorts of teachers. One way to work around this is to ask another teacher for help if you do not comprehend lessons well the way your assigned teacher is teaching. I always wanted those semesters/years with those teachers to go by quickly.

The amazing teachers are the ones I believe will impact my life forever. One that I can remember in particular always pushed me to reach my full potential as a student and as an individual. One of my favorite teachers always gave me praise for writing, and this gave me encouragement to continue and improve on my writing skills. The better I wrote, the more rewarded I felt.

Knowing and understanding your teachers is vital. Getting on a teacher’s good side has always been a goal for me. A few key things I have learned that are helpful include: paying attention in class, coming before/after school for extra help, and giving each and every assignment your best effort. These are the easiest ways to getting and staying on the good side of a teacher. A teacher usually recognizes the effort you put into class, and this can determine how much they are willing to help you out in the long run. The best way to get help from a teacher is to approach them during non-class hours. The one-on-one time with a teacher can be very beneficial because all of the focus is on you and your work. This is usually rewarded with a good grade.

Overall, a majority of my teachers have made my school experience an enjoyable one. I look forward to meeting my new teachers at the start of every school year.

Connor O’Leary is a student at Creighton Prep.

Finding a Summer Tutor

June 20, 2013 by

As a parent of three kids, I know the challenge of helping my own children with their homework—especially if they are really struggling. Even though I spent years as a classroom teacher, my own children seem immune to my “instructional savvy.” Instead of battling with them, I have chosen to turn to a tutor.

If you are considering hiring a tutor, I suggest reading Carole McGraw’s “Four Steps to Finding an Excellent Tutor for Your Child” on readingrockets.org. Here are a few of her suggestions in condensed form:

First, ask for suggestions from your child’s teacher about what he or she needs to work on. Before you start, know what your child needs and the goal of tutoring.

Second, know your child. How does he or she learn best? Look for someone you think would connect with your child and make learning fun.

Third, research your options. Before heading to a tutoring company, consider all possibilities. Ask if there are free options available through your child’s school. Some schools provide time before or after school for review. If this isn’t available or doesn’t do the trick, ask the school counselor how you might find a tutor outside of the school environment. Asking friends, relatives, neighbors, the local high school, the local community college/university, or posting on Facebook may provide some great resources. Be sure to ask for a résumé to check credentials, look for teaching experience in the specific subject area, check references, and meet with the person before the first session. It is wise to supervise the tutoring sessions until you and your child become more comfortable with the person.

Finally, think about how your child learns, and work with the tutor to design an age-appropriate learning plan. There are so many fun, innovative ways for children to review skills and content beyond the standard worksheet approach. Find what works best for your child. Sometimes learning a new skill or reviewing missing areas is all about finding a different approach.

Karen Sokolof Javitch

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The image of Karen Sokolof Javitch singing and camping it up on YouTube in the music video of her song, “I’m Not Obama’s Babe” doesn’t square with the unassuming, quietly engaging, makeup-less woman who buys flavored water at her favorite coffee shop. Not surprising, since there are many facets to the Omaha native: singer, songwriter, author, playwright, radio host, advocate, teacher, wife, mother, daughter, philanthropist.

Music is actually Karen’s second act. After earning a degree at the University of Texas, she began as a teacher of visually impaired children, a career inspired by her late mother, Ruth Sokolof. “My mother taught blind children for years. Everyone loved her. Film Streams Theater is named after her.”

It wasn’t until Karen’s own three children were in school that her life headed in a different direction. “It was around 1993. I was talking to a friend of mine, Jim Conant, and he said he had just written the book for a musical, but he hadn’t written any of the songs. And I said to him, ‘Um, can I try this?’”

Karen proved to be a natural at writing both the words and the lyrics to 13 songs for the production entitled Love! At The Café! The show ran for about seven weeks at a small venue in Benson. “It was like a faucet turned on in my brain. The lyrics came first, and then I could hear the music in my head to go with them.”

Karen next collaborated with her good friend, local actress and author Elaine Jabenis, to write more shows, including the tribute Princess Diana, The Musical. Another key player in Karen’s success, Chuck Penington of Manheim Steamroller, orchestrates her music. Whether a song is catchy, rhythmic, and Broadway-like, or a touching ballad, Karen’s melodies stay with the listener.

“It was like a faucet turned on in my brain. The lyrics came first, and then I could hear the music in my head to go with them.”

Where did her talent come from? “My father, Phil, was a song-and-dance man before he became a successful businessman. He tried his luck in Chicago when he was 17. He finally realized he couldn’t be the next Frank Sinatra.”

Phil Sokolof would later use some of his fortune from his drywall company to wage a one-man crusade against cholesterol—a decades-long fight that resulted in nutrition information on food packaging.

Karen has written hundreds of songs, penned four musicals, and released 13 CDs, singing on many of them. While she should be swimming in royalties, the Westside High graduate has instead followed her parents’ legacy of giving back to their community.

“All proceeds from my music go to charities, mostly in Nebraska,” says Karen.

Does she make any money at all?

“Well, let’s just say my goal is to break even,” she says with a smile.

Over the past 20 years, Karen has raised over $300,000 in service to others. One project in particular remains dear to her heart. The “Nebraska Celebrities Sing for Sight” CD, for which she wrote most of the music and lyrics and featuring 20 celebrities from the area (including a terrific country vocal from former U.S. Senator Ben Nelson), raised money for visually impaired children. The man who couldn’t compete with Frank Sinatra also sings a track.

“Dad was alive when I started to do my music. He was very proud.”

Karen’s CDs can be found at the Nebraska Furniture Mart or online at CD Baby. Her radio show, “It’s the Beat!” with Jody Vinci, airs Saturdays at noon on KOIL 1290.