A few days after winning the award, a thrilled but humble Westphal spoke to Lake & Sumter Style about her school, Rimes Early Learning & Literacy Center School in Leesburg, and her indomitable students.
Congratulations, Lori, on your teacher of the year honors. That must have been a very proud moment for you and your school. What was it like when you heard your name called?
I think I just sat there! Everyone was standing, and I was still sitting in my seat. Did she really say my name? It took me a minute to process it and actually stand up and go up there. It was definitely a shock.
What has the response been like from parents and colleagues?
They’re very, very excited. I’ve had a lot of teachers e-mail me to say congratulations. Everyone at the school is thrilled. It’s not just a personal recognition. We’re proud of the whole school.
Is this the first teacher of the year award for Rimes?
No, Patsy Edmondson won in 2007. We have another teacher of the year—one of our kindergarten teachers—on our campus. She won it at another school in 2004.
When did you start at Rimes?
In 2007. I was in Volusia County from 1992 to 2003, and then I moved to Lake County in the fall of 2003. I was an itinerant teacher for the deaf for four years.
Tell me about why you decided to go into teaching.
I was in college and heading toward either occupational therapy or psychology. I was going back and forth, and I volunteered one day at a camp for deaf children [since] I had taken sign language in college. I met a little three-year-old girl there named Emily, and she was my responsibility for that day. I came home that night and told my mom that I knew I wanted to go to graduate school for deaf education and I wanted to name my first child Emily.
I was 19, and I did go on to the University of Pittsburg and got my master’s in deaf education. I started teaching in 1992. On a side note, in 2005 I had my first child and named her Emily, and by sheer coincidence, she’s deaf. There’s no rhyme or reason. There’s no family history. But I definitely know that I chose the right path in life. Not only do the parents view me as an advocate because I’m their child’s teacher but also because I’m a parent of a deaf child myself.
That’s incredible, Lori. So you’ve never wanted to teach any other group then?
Oh, no. Absolutely not. I love working with the deaf and hard of hearing. I love the language. One of the things that’s special about this position is I have the same students for a few years. This year I’m teaching second to fourth grade. Next year I’ll have third to fifth grade. It really gives me an opportunity to know them and their family.
Do you think anyone can teach?
To be a good teacher, you have to have a certain amount of passion for what you’re doing. I think that goes with any job, so if you don’t have that passion, I don’t think you’d be a really effective teacher.
Teaching is certainly much more than just giving a lesson.
Definitely. We go above and beyond the 8:00am to 3:30pm workday. On the way home from school, I’m thinking about what I did, could I have done it better, what should I do different next time. You’re constantly in teacher mode.
What’s the rapport like between the teachers at Rimes?
We’re a small school, and everyone here is so supportive and helpful. That’s one of the things that I really like about teaching—the professionalism. It’s not competitive. You’re not trying to outdo the next person to get ahead. Everyone is here for the greater good of the students, so when we find something that’s working, we share it. When you work with great teachers, it makes you want to be a great teacher.
Politicians often remind us to support education, and I think most people want to but sometimes feel like they don’t know how to. How can the public better support you and your colleagues?
Get involved. When it’s time to elect our officials, become knowledgeable. When it’s time to vote on an issue—for example, the class size amendment—do research before the vote. In that way, they’ve made an informed decision. That’s the way things get done.
What should people know about your students?
My students have taught me over the years that anything is possible. They don’t look at themselves as different. They’re just kids. They have a determination and persistence [to] overcome any adversity. My students are learning how to play the cello. They take dance lessons and gymnastics. They just get out there and do it. My students aren’t allowed to say ‘I can’t’ in my room. They need to try. It may not be right; it may not be perfect; but it’s their best. That’s all I ever ask for.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?
The little things [like] when you see a student struggling with a concept or something new. It may be the next day, the next week, or the next minute, but they get it. That’s the most rewarding.