You won’t be far into a conversation with Nora Hammer when you realize teaching is not her job, it is her passion.
It is often said that people in agriculture are not in a business, that farming or ranching is their way of life. Hammer’s way of life is teaching and making a difference in the lives of students who otherwise might end up in an ever-deepening rut of unhappiness and inability to even get along with the rest of the world.
A fifth-grade special needs and special ed teacher at Northside Elementary School, Hammer, 40, got a gift two years ago in the form of several youngsters with more needs than a team of teachers could deal with in the classroom.
“There were behavioral issues right from the start,” Hammer recalls. One day in Hammer’s absence, the class, in particular some leaders in the class, misbehaved badly while under the purview of a substitute teacher. “Subs” often find classes testing the boundaries under their watch – cat’s away you might say – and Hammer’s kids took it as far as they could.
On her return, Hammer gathered herself and started a punishment program that backfired, but in a good way.
“I had them write the substitute teacher apology letters and we set up a community service program,” Hammer recalls. The community service plan included the resurrecting the schools recycling program which was in disarray. The recycle program had even garnered fines for the school because of contaminants found in the bins. Recycling has rules and they were not being followed.
It became apparent, almost from the start, that what was supposed to be a punishment was actually a connection with the students that Hammer had not expected but that teachers dream of.
“I added the principles of the STEM curriculum to my problem-based learning lesson plan to give the whole experiment direction,” Hammer says.
The STEM methodology puts the student in charge of coming up with solutions to identified problems. Actually, Hammer had begun a project with the recycling program a year earlier. “But it failed, because we didn’t have clear goals,” she says.
In version 2 of the “Shape Up the Recycling Program,” Hammer took a different approach. In 2019 she told then-Montrose Daily Press reporter Monica Garcia (now Delta County Independent editor) that the second time around, the students felt much more empowered. “They were a lot more driven to make the program successful.”
One of the major assets in Hammer’s do-over was giving the students responsibilities – they are in charge of every facet of the project. This empowerment is a vital grain in the process of both achieving success in the chosen project, but in the positive development of the students as well.
In storytelling, the development, positive or negative, of a character is called their arc. The arc can take many forms. In virtually every student, Hammer saw a positive arc.
“When we launched the recycling project and they took hold, fixing what we got wrong the year before and coming up with new solutions, it was amazing …” her voice trails off and she dabs her eyes with a napkin. Hammer apologizes for her emotional lapse.
“When I think about those kids and what they did, it leaves me speechless sometimes,” she says.
The students, swearing that the school would never pay fines again, redesigned an entire recycling program. As their restructuring moved along, other people in the school, janitors, other students, teachers, and even folks from Waste Management got on board. They changed locations of bins to avoid having people use them for regular trash. The pickup schedule for swapping recycling bins from classrooms and other locations got a makeover. Upon hearing that the school needed to sort their recycled materials, empowered fifth-graders came up with divided bins.
Of course, the word sustainable came up. That happens a lot nowadays. The team had built a prototype and it needed to be made repeatable. So, they developed a plan to show the next fifth-grade (or whomever) how to keep the program going.
Hammer’s program caught the eye of other teachers and the Northside administration. They thought that Hammer should be recognized, not only for her restoration of the recycling program, but for her repurposing 24 kids who were in need of direction and self-confidence. They reached out to Mendy Stewart, the education outreach coordinator at the Shavano Conservation District.
Stewart tells the rest of the story from the point of view of the Shavano Conservation District:
“Nora was nominated by her peers at Northside Elementary and by Shavano District staff for Teacher of the Year award. The Shavano District Board selected Nora to recognize her accomplishments in conservation education. Nora used conservation, not only to teach her students about natural resources and recycling, but to turn their poor behavior around into a school-wide project that they were so proud of that they passed it down to the next grade-levels.
“Her students have not only learned how to recycle or that recycling benefits us and our community. They learned the value of stewardship – truly at the heart of conservation. Stewardship is why the farmer farms and why the stockman raises livestock – they take pride in managing their land, water, and animal resources responsibly. And stewardship is why Nora’s fifth-graders will continue to be aware of their use of natural resources and recycling for the rest of their lives.”
Hammer will receive her award on Monday, June 14 at the annual Shavano Conservation District meeting and bar-b-que, which will be held at the Montrose Elks Club.
Also to be honored that night will be the Farmers of the Year, Doug and Brody Flowers, and the Rancher of the Year, Daris Jutten.