Ready, Set, Teach

The just-risen sun glows through the window as Grace Bollman walks into her classroom, room G121 of Kenowa Hills High School, and gets ready to greet her incoming students on the first day of school.

Even after two decades of teaching, the first day is still an exciting one for her – and nerve-wracking. “Teachers are always nervous,” Bollman says with a laugh. “We just try not to tell anyone.” 

For her, it’s day one of year 22 in a lifelong mission to make students feel loved and help prepare them for life. She’d woken up at 5:15 a.m. and gotten to school by 6:30. Had she gotten everything ready? She’d started preparing her room three weeks earlier: the cozy couch she bought at a garage sale, the corner reading chair she has promised to a student upon graduation, the inspirational sayings plastered everywhere.

All is ready for her freshman English class. But the first student who walks in is senior Jacob Williams, a former student whom she helped through some tough times, stopping by just to say hi. “You’ll do fine, you’ll do fine,” she reassures him with a hug. 

As the freshmen begin filing in, she greets each one with a handshake and a smile: “Hi! Welcome. How are you? I’m Mrs. Bollman.” After the 7:35 a.m. bell rings, she stands before 28 sleepy students and says, “Good morning. I’m Mrs. Bollman and this is English 9.” Another year of teaching and learning has begun.

Undiminished passion for teachingGrace Bollman chats before class with senior Jacob Williams, a former student of hers who stopped by to say hello before the first day of classes began

Bollman is beginning her 14th year at Kenowa following eight in her hometown of Bay City. Growing up poor with personal struggles, she was inspired early on to teach by the teachers she admired. She says she feels more passionate about her profession than ever.

“I finally feel like I have all of the pieces of the puzzle, and it feels great having a positive impact on our future citizens and leaders,” she says.

The puzzle grows more complex as Bollman incorporates new teaching techniques and coming curriculum changes, such as Kenowa’s Journey to Excellence initiative. She says the most important part of teaching is building relationships with students. If you don’t connect with them, they won’t learn, she insists.

“Most of all, I want my students to feel safe with me, knowing that I am their biggest fan,” she says.  “I don’t care about their past failings. I only care about making them the best English student they can be.”

She is up front about that with her English 9 class. After one student talks of moving to Kenowa from another state, she admits her first year here was tough after moving from Bay City,

“I hope you guys feel good about being here,” she says. “I’m going to do my best to make sure each and every one of you feels safe in my room.”

First things first

She starts her first class with an exercise to begin building students’ relationships – and help her learn their names. They go into the hall and, without saying a word, line up alphabetically according to their first names. Hands shape letters. Text messages help, too.

Then it’s on to the Google Chromebooks, the laptops all Kenowa students in grades six through 12 have been issued this year. She tells them they may not recharge them at school, and asks why they think that is.

She gets back at least a minute of dead air. But Bollman refuses to answer for them, saying, “I need to be patient.”  

“We’re too poor for electricity,” onestudent finally ventures. “No, but that’s a thought,” Bollman says. “I’m grateful you had one!”

Students open their Chromebooks and she shows them a chart of writing skills: main idea, transitions and evidence. She assigns them to write what they think of English, adding, “I’m not going to get my feelings hurt if you say ‘I really can’t stand English class.’ “

Even students who can’t stand English may have other gifts, she says, recalling a student who fared poorly but could rebuild car engines like a genius.

After an hour, her first class exits and her next one walks in. She will teach five today, comfort a crying student and go to an open house until 8:30 p.m. She ends the day exhausted but grateful.

“I think I helped kids to see I’m there to help them,” she says. “It makes me feel good that I at least got a few smiles.”

Connect: Kenowa Hills Public Schools

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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